Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama
Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama attend a news conference together.
Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
After chatting for nearly three hours at the Menla inn, Thurman finally announces that he's feeling a bit jetlagged and should probably rest before the evening teaching. But before he can head upstairs, he's waylaid by another Menla visitor, his collaborator on a graphic novel about the life of the Dalai Lama. I get up and take a walk around the property.

When I return to the inn, Thurman is still talking to the comic-book guy. Eventually he does manage to squeeze in a brief nap before dinner (vegetarian meatloaf, Yukon-gold mashed potatoes, braised carrots, chocolate cupcakes), after which about 10 ski-retreat attendees, who have paid between $550 and $1,100 per person (not including lift tickets), gather around the hearth to listen to the teaching. Thurman sits in a grand, tall-backed chair, while we drag our uncomfortable dining room chairs into a loose circle around him. He says he's going to read from his own translation of the 'Vimalakirti Sutra.'

The session feels both intimate and informal. Thurman asks the group if anyone understands what he means by nonduality. People raise their hands, take stabs at a definition, blurt out questions of their own, while Thurman manages to wade into heady philosophical territory without leaving the rest of us behind. Someone asks about the Buddhist notion that our sense of self is not fixed. Thurman says any descriptions become inadequate, because what we're discussing is inconceivable, inexpressible. Chuckling at the folly of humanity, he continues, "That doesn't mean Buddhists don't expend enormous effort creating vectors of expression to guide the mind toward the inconceivability. But they also have a caveat: If you think you know what you're describing, then you don't know."

A paunchy, middle-aged man wearing glasses, a fleece vest, and acid-washed dad jeans has been asking most of the questions, and now he pipes up again.

"I would dismiss that," he begins, "because –"

Thurman is hard of hearing. "Excuse me?" he asks, cocking his head.

"I would dismiss that, because –"

"You would do what?"

"Dismiss."

Annoyance creeps into Thurman's voice. "Well, you're always dismissing and thinking. Why are you doing that? How do you expect to learn anything when you're always just doing it your way?"

"Well, I thought, because Buddha was human and –"

"What makes you think Buddha is human? When you become a being that is infinite and one with every other being, what's human about that?"

"Well, I don't know. I would say that some of that may be the mythology that's developed over centuries..."

"Well, yeah, because you are part of a culture where everybody's got to be just like you."

"I don't know about that, but..."

"Everybody has to be like you!"

Thurman's sudden petulance has blindsided the entire room.

"You were saying that if you think you know what the Buddha experienced, then you don't. And I said I would dismiss that, because if the Buddha was human, and the Buddha was able to have the experience, then I can have that experience."

"What is your problem?" Thurman snaps. "Why do you have to re-express something and confuse yourself, and then get all stubborn about it? If you want to learn something, I'm happy to teach you. If you want to tell me what it is, I'm happy to learn from you. But we can't do both at the same time."

The man's wife is blushing now, and he's clearly discomfited as well. "OK, I beg to differ, but that's OK," he murmurs.

"Yeah, of course you do!" Thurman shouts. "That's your thing. OK, then you tell us about it! I don't want to differ."

"Well," the man begins gingerly, "are you saying Buddha, as a divinity, became nonhuman?"

"That's what the Buddhists say."

"But what do you believe?"

"I'm not actually giving you the privilege to query me as to what I believe! I'm telling you what the Buddhists say. In case you're interested! In case you think that somebody else might know something that you don't! Because if you just think you know everything, then it's useless!"

The man looks crestfallen.

"I didn't mean to upset you."

"You're sure?" Thurman asks sarcastically.

At this point, an attractive young woman – a yoga teacher – who has been sitting cross-legged on a chair and taking notes in a butterfly notebook cries out, "Oh, hush, both of you! Let's move on with the teaching!" And magically, the tension is broken. Everyone laughs. Everyone, that is, except for Thurman, who now pivots his good eye upon her.

"What?" he asks. "We are going to do what?"

"I said, hush, both of you, and we'll move on with the teaching."

"You teach them, if you're going to cut both of us."

The laughter falls away completely, and we sit in dead silence for a long, awkward procession of seconds.

"Nobody says anything? That's fine. I think we should not bother." Thurman slams his book shut and slips it into the bag at his feet. "The Vimalakirti is not necessary. Nobody said you needed to read the Vimalakirti. I don't need to read it. Yesterday we were just informally chatting, and so I think you should talk amongst yourselves, as they say on 'Saturday Night Live.' That's what you want to do, so do it."

After a few moments, a shy man with a Spanish accent who ate dinner at a table by himself (and traveled all the way from Florida to attend the retreat) entreats Thurman to continue. The yoga teacher and the original interrupter both apologize.

Thurman looks around the room. There's another long pause. Then, slowly, he reaches back into his bag. "I was going to discuss the Vimalakirti," he begins. His voice, once again, is pleasant, melodious, the voice of everyone's favorite professor, as if nothing happened at all.