Thurman is comfortable moving in this kind of rarefied environment, though in general, his presentation hews closer to the classically professorial: the scattered, distracted air of someone living the life of the mind; a tendency to lecture, even when not standing in front of a podium; a fashion sense best described as rumpled. "He's first and foremost an academic – just not the stiff kind," says his friend Richard Gere. "In terms of reaching students, no one has been a stronger voice for Tibetan Buddhism in the West."
We had met for the first time at Tibet House, a relatively modest space near New York's Union Square. It's a huge step up from the original headquarters, housed in Gere's production office: The current building has a gift shop and a museum, and is meant to be "a gateway for people to meet Tibet, by falling in love with its culture, basically," as Thurman explains. The foundation possesses between $2 million and $3 million worth of Tibetan art, donated by collectors. Thurman greets me in a gallery featuring the responses of various contemporary artists to Tibetan Buddhism. There's a video of an artist who makes sculptures of his own hair, and a plexiglass case filled with clay shards titled "What Remains." Thurman likes a series of big, pastel-streaked abstracts the best, particularly one inspired by a female deity he describes as a dominatrix.
This afternoon, Thurman is wearing a wine-colored crushed-velvet jacket over a striped shirt and a bright orange Hermès tie decorated with variously plumed peacocks. He'd been running late, so his son Ganden, the executive director of Tibet House, had been showing me around. The moment his father arrived, Ganden abruptly excused himself, almost midsentence. Thurman later insists he's "not the big paterfamilias" of his household, that his children "tease me very incredibly and do not defer to me in any way, and I appreciate it. Some people ask me, 'Is Uma a Buddhist?' I say, 'You have to ask her.' They're all free thinkers, you know." (Another son, Dechen, is a former model who became a popular, charismatic yoga teacher in New York City.)
Thurman possesses an odd, unplaceable accent: part Scandinavian – his "theres" occasionally morphing into "ders" – and part East Coast patrician, with a froggy dash of Nashville Skyline-era Dylan that makes him sound like he's simultaneously attempting to speak and swallow a mouthful of insufficiently cooled Cream of Wheat. He grew up on New York's Upper East Side, where his mother acted in the theater and his father worked as an editor at the Associated Press. The Thurmans were not particularly religious, attending mass at a Protestant church mostly on holidays. "You could say my social background is impoverished gentry," Thurman says. His great-grandfather on his mother's side was a Pennsylvania farmer who discovered oil on his property and became rich, though most of the money had been lost in bad real estate deals by the time Thurman was born. His parents held weekly salons at their apartment, and Thurman has recalled performing in dramatic readings alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier.
"He's still a performer," Gere says. "That's in his blood, running from his mother to Uma." The first time the two met, Gere recalls, was at a lecture in 1984, when Thurman cheekily advocated that well-meaning Tibet supporters simply raise $2 billion and buy the country from the Chinese. "You watch him and you can see why he's such a draw to students. He's erudite, funny, attractive, willing to say the wrong thing and then correct himself. He's definitely not someone who ever wants to be sitting in the back of the lecture hall, not participating."
Because of her own wealthy upbringing, Thurman's mother sent her son to Exeter, the elite New Hampshire boarding school. Thurman, who attended on scholarship, has said that he was "quite popular," that the school "felt like family to me." Once he was accepted into Harvard, he felt like he was on track to be a part of the WASP establishment, where he would likely wind up in the State Department working alongside his fellow best and brightest. But Thurman and his closest friends were also idealists, in love with Latin American poetry, and Thurman chafed at the idea that his "whole future was programmed."
In 1958, a few months shy of graduating from Exeter, Thurman and a wealthy Mexican schoolmate, inspired by Fidel Castro's Cuban uprising, decided to take a train to Miami and sign up for the revolution. They brought along a friend's handgun and managed to find a Cuban expat bar, where they were recruited to spread support for Castro in Vera Cruz, but once they arrived in Mexico, they were picked up, sent home, and expelled from school.
A year later, Thurman was accepted at Harvard anyway. During his first term, he fell in love with a classmate, the heiress Christophe de Menil. They married at 18 and had a daughter, Taya. Around this time, Thurman, who had also been racing cars, lost his eye during an accident in the garage – a jack snapped, striking his face – and he decided to take a break from school and make a pilgrimage to India and the Middle East. In Turkey and Iran, he wandered like a beggar, his eye socket empty, wearing baggy Afghani harem trousers, leather sandals, and a white shawl.
Thurman had tried to bring his wife and daughter, thinking they'd travel the country by Jeep and hire a nanny, living out the novels of Herman Hesse, but de Menil didn't find this prospect appealing, and the marriage broke up. The split became bitter after Thurman remarried. "So long as I was a monk, [de Menil] was cool," he says. "But when I came back to being in the world and fell in love with someone else, that was unfathomable to her."
(Thurman and his eldest daughter remained estranged for years, and he never got to know his grandson, the artist and downtown scenemaker Dash Snow, who became infamous for making collages splattered with his own semen and who died in 2009 of a heroin overdose. "They brought me in [to try to help Snow] too late," Thurman says sadly. "At one point, he'd been told I was dead, that he didn't have a maternal grandfather. So he'd never known me at all, and I couldn't really deal with it." Thurman and Taya have since reconciled.)
Upon reaching India, Thurman got a job teaching English to exiled tulkus (reincarnated Tibetan lamas). Later, he told the 'New York Times,' "I was in heaven, because the minute I met the Tibetans, I knew they had what I wanted." He'd been studying philosophy at Harvard – Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger – and Tibetan Buddhism's dealings with the illusory plane of causality came to seem like the next step.
Then his father suddenly died. The elder Thurman had supported his son's wanderings, placing them in the context of one of his own heroes, St. Francis, and once telling Thurman, "You're doing what I always wanted to do." (Thurman's mother always thought her son was nuts.) Thurman returned to the United States for the funeral and at a monastery in New Jersey, he met Geshe Wangyal, a Buddhist monk from Mongolia who would become his guru. As Sam van Schaik recounts in 'Tibet: A History,' Wangyal asked "the long-haired and exotically attired" Thurman, "How can you travel the path of the Dharma? You can't even travel on a bus without everybody freaking out." After Thurman became fluent in Tibetan in 10 weeks and returned to India, Wangyal grudgingly brokered an introduction with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. "He thinks he's going to be a monk for life," Wangyal told the Dalai Lama. "But I say he won't be."
Still, the Dalai Lama, only six years older than Thurman, took a liking to the young American and invited him to Dharamsala. Thurman spent the next year studying Tibetan medicine and astronomy, waking every morning at three, meditating constantly, and meeting regularly with the Dalai Lama, who, as a relatively recent exile – he'd only fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 – wanted to learn about the West. He interrogated Thurman about Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, Plato, the U.S. Constitution. It was 1964, and Westerners were still exotic visitors in a place like Dharamsala. Some of the other monks looked askance at the American, thinking, in Thurman's telling, "Shit, we're refugees. Where's his money? Where's his machine guns? Why isn't he bringing in an F-15 to help us against the Chinese?"
Eventually, the Dalai Lama allowed Thurman to take the 253 vows necessary to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Certain of these vows were, admittedly, rather strange. Thurman, for example, had to swear that he was not a naga, a kind of serpent or dragon posing as a human, and that he had not had a sex change operation for the third time. ("I confess, I never looked up the origins of that one," he says.)
The four major vows, the ones you can't break and easily repair, were prohibitions against murder, stealing, lying about your spiritual enlightenment, and sex. For four years, from the age of 21 to 25, Thurman remained celibate. He says it wasn't difficult, that certain tantric meditative states actually approach the orgasmic, so that celibacy becomes very pleasant, actually, and certainly less complicated than the alternative. What eventually drove Thurman to break his vows was not lust but rather feeling out of step with his time. He'd returned to the U.S. in his monk's robes at the height of the 1960s cultural revolution. His friends were taking drugs and listening to rock & roll, while Thurman had never even heard of the Beatles. More important, they were protesting the Vietnam War and participating in the civil rights movement – worldly actions forbidden by his monastery, where he was supposed to be living a cloistered life of study. He tried telling his friends, "'Look, you could meditate if you want. You don't have to, like, get stoned all the time.' I was trying to be the guru, you know? And it wasn't working." At one point during the Menla retreat, Thurman, perhaps inspired by the mountain setting, brings up a famous Buddhist teaching, which goes like this: "In the beginning, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers/Then the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers/And then, again, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers."
The teaching is all about how an enlightened Buddha consciousness perceives reality with a sort of double awareness. "A Japanese philosopher came up with a nice analogy," Thurman explains. "He said, 'Enlightened consciousness is like a doubly exposed negative' – you know, when there are two images on one piece of film, and you can see both. The Buddha consciousness sees the oneness and the Nirvana nature of everything, and at the same time, he sees what other people see, which is different from that – everyone separate and struggling and so forth. And the Buddha sees both of these realities at the same time."
People have misunderstood the teaching as equating enlightenment with a sort of resignation to the ordinariness of reality. But that's wrong, Thurman says. Because once you've realized the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers, and then are able to see them again as mountains and rivers – to reconstruct them after they've disappeared, so to speak – that's a completely different kind of consciousness, the opposite of someone who truly believes the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers – someone, in other words, who possesses misplaced confidence in his own perception.
"If," Thurman concludes, perhaps optimistically, "you follow me."
One of Thurman's verbal tics is the use of some variation on the phrase "if you follow me." Sometimes it's more of a question: "You follow me?" Other times it's so truncated it borders on a gentle command: "Follow me." During the course of a two-hour teaching session at Menla, he used the phrase at least 23 times. Of course, we don't always follow him.