Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama
Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama attend a news conference together.
Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
At one point, for example, we're discussing the Buddhist concept of emptiness – the dissolution of the notion of "self" that leads to an understanding of the deep interrelatedness of everything – and Thurman says, "Emptiness means relativity, you know?" and then proceeds to point out how a nearby wall, which appears solid, can actually be thought of very differently at a subatomic quantum level. That knowledge, he says, deepens his meditations on infinity, and whenever he feels himself "absolute" – if he becomes angry or obsessed about something – he uses this meditation to realize that the absolute is a distortion, which becomes a beautiful thing, a form of ultimate freedom, because if the absolute is actually emptiness, then you're free to make a choice about whatever you want the absolute to be.

If you follow me.

For the Western dilettante, it's easy to emphasize the facets of Buddhism that relate to mind and body – yoga, meditation, a deep sense of awareness of the present moment – and overlook teachings about the soul that require more of a leap of faith: karma, reincarnation, nirvana, the choosing of the Dalai Lama as a young child. With Thurman, who described himself to me as "a very nonreligious type of Buddhist," I'd also begun to wonder if his pursuit of enlightenment was primarily an academic exercise – if, over the years, he'd oscillated between more of an intellectual interest in Buddhism and Tibetan culture and actual faith in the religion's mystical aspects.

"Yeah, but I'm still not that faithful, you know?" Thurman said. "I don't... I can say this: For a long time, I had an intellectual conviction about reincarnation, because it made sense to me. I refute the materialist idea that the mind is the epiphenomenon of the brain. And I considered reincarnation the most scientifically and empirically validate-able, relational description of the life process and how life and death work. The arguments in the Buddhist philosophies made sense, and I read the literature of people who remembered previous lives, and the 'Book of the Dead'-type thing of how it works, the rebirth process, blah blah blah. So I had that. But I never had had a visceral experience, myself, of remembering such a thing."

Then he told me a story: In 1995, he visited Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site in Tibet, for the first time. When you drive to Mount Kailash from central Tibet, the road wends its way through a river valley, and eventually you emerge on a rise, which, if it's a clear day, offers a wonderful view of the mountain – in fact, spotting Mount Kailash at this point is considered a good omen – and as Thurman's Jeep emerged from the valley, there, before them, rose the sacred peaks. It was nearing sunset, and a plume of clouds had turned golden, making a beautiful vista, and Thurman felt incredibly moved.

They stopped, and Thurman began gathering rocks to build a little cairn, which is what Tibetans are supposed to do – there were a number of cairns left by pilgrims all around them – but first, he made a bow toward the mountain, and as he rose, suddenly, he became aware of the presence of two other people inside his own head. This is where it gets weird. Thurman remained himself, but he also knew these two strangers were definitely him. Only they weren't strangers, not exactly, because he knew who they were, these past lives of his. Both were great scholars, yogis, one from the 20th century, the other, a Mongolian, from an earlier period. And they were laughing at each other, and at him! They had both spent their lives studying a particular tantra associated with Mount Kailash, and yet they had never been able to make the pilgrimage during their own lifetimes. "And now," one of them cackled, "we get here as this turkey from New York, showing up in a Jeep!"

Thurman wanted to communicate with them, but they faded away. "It was a shock to me," he says. "Because it was a visceral thing, and it also explained many things about certain relationships I've had with people in this life, and it also explained why they'd kept themselves hidden from me, actually, which I can't even get into. It's very –"

"And you didn't think," interrupts the skeptic, "'Oh, it must have been the mountain air'?"

"No, no, no. Well, mountain air will affect you in different kinds of ways. But no, this was specific. Very, very specific. It was the first experience where I actually, physically remembered a previous life, in a very incontrovertible manner. And since then, belief in reincarnation – it's not a blind faith thing. I don't need to have faith. It's become a matter of conviction – of experiential conviction."