Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama
Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama attend a news conference together.
Credit: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
About 10 years ago, a series of books on the seven deadly sins was published, each written by a different author. Thurman, who participated in the series, wrote 'Anger.' "I have always had a problem with anger," he acknowledges in the preamble. "I used to lose my temper very quickly, intensely, and it would sweep me away into a fierce swirl of thoughts, sudden words, sometimes a furious movement, long ago perhaps a charge, a blow...." He recalls that, while studying to become a monk, his teacher prohibited him from learning all of the formal tricks of Tibetan debate, because he was already such a fearsome debater and with the added skills "would make too many people unhappy." He suspects that the anger still "lurking deep down in my habitual patterns" comes as a birthright, "down through my paternal lineage of Southern rednecks."

When I ask Thurman about the source of his anger, he chuckles and says, "I don't really know, but if you're doing a shrink analysis, you might say my older brother, David. He was....temperamental." David, who died in the seventies, liked to box, and administered regular beatings on young Robert. ("Little Bobby was so brave," David would recall fondly to their mother years later. "Every time I knocked him down, he jumped right back up!")

"I've certainly worked on my anger a lot with Buddhism," Thurman goes on, recalling a moment in 1985 "where I was in India, and somebody in the Tibetan world was really pushing my buttons, and I had almost a wish to do something physical to him. They teach you to detach in these moments, and I was able to step away in my mind. I felt a wave of heat flowing out of my chest towards that guy, and yet I was very calm: 'OK, whatever you say...."

When I bring up the Menla outburst, Thurman says he knew the student, that he'd been bothering Nena earlier in the weekend and monopolizing group conversations. "So I just used my prerogative as a teacher in a forceful way," he insists. "I know some people were shocked. But I didn't consider that a loss of temper."

Indeed, in all the time we spent together, Thurman was nothing but pleasant, save for the incident described above. Once the teaching continued, everything was fine. Thurman took questions afterward and joked about how now he'd be more than happy to debate. All seemed forgiven.

Once the lecture started back up, I did find myself hoping, for the sake of this story, that Thurman might defy expectations yet again, having already surprised us with such boorish behavior, by cracking open our skulls with a teaching so heavy and mysterious and mind-meltingly occult, we'd realize the entire performance had actually been by design, like your guru on the mountaintop who begins his lesson by smacking you across the face with his sandal.

I thought that, and at the same time, I wasn't thinking about writing this article at all. I wanted my mind blown in real life. I wanted a glimpse of what Thurman claimed to have seen.

I'll save you the suspense: That didn't happen.

But he did lecture on the Vimalakirti. Specifically, he told us about a wonderful moment toward the end of the sutra, when Sariputra, one of the Buddha's disciples, challenges his master with an impudent question. If, Sariputra wonders, the Lord Buddha's mind is truly pure, and if, furthermore, the Lord Buddha has the power, as Buddhists believe, to shape reality and make the world around him a perfect Buddhaverse.... well, what went wrong? Why, as Thurman puts it, are we stuck here in crappy India, with its poor people and sickness, its suffering, its man-eating crocodiles?

And the Lord Buddha says, "What do you think, Sariputra? Is it because the sun and moon are impure that those blind from birth do not see them?"

And Sariputra says, "No, Laord. It is not so. The fault lies with those blind from birth, and not with the sun and moon."

And then the Lord Buddha says, "In the same way, Sariputra, the fact that some living beings" – like you, but he doesn't say that – "do not behold the splendid display of virtues of the Buddhaverse is due to their own ignorance. It is not the fault of the transcendent Lord."

Sariputra doesn't back down, though. Braver than Moses, this guy. He says, "As for me, O Brahma, I see this great Earth, with its highs and lows, its thorns, its precipices, its peaks and its abysses, as if it were entirely filled with dung."

Meaning, Thurman says, full of shit.

"That you see such a Buddhaverse as this as if it were so impure, reverend Sariputra, is a sure sign that your mind is full of dung," the Lord Buddha responds.

And then the Lord Buddha touches the ground with his big toe. And suddenly everyone present has a magnificent vision – all around them, an array of precious jewels appears, hundreds of thousands of them, a rain of gems possessing infinite virtues, personalized thrones of jeweled lotuses, filling all assembled with wonder.

In other words, for a moment everyone suddenly saw the world as perfectly adapted to them, as the optimal situation for their personal evolution. In the same way that different flowers require varieties of temperature and soil and watering to flourish, so, too, did those present realize they inhabited the perfect setting for their own flourishing, even though, normally, the world struck them as inadequate. But now, suddenly, they understood. It was the ideal setting for them to learn what they had to do! They could see it now. Perfection, all around them.

So then, the Buddha said to the venerable Sariputra, "Sariputra, do you see this splendor of the virtues of the Buddhaverse?"

Sariputra replied, "I see it, Lord! Here before me is a display of splendor such as I never before heard of or beheld!"

And the Lord Buddha says, "Sariputra, this Buddhaverse is always thus pure, but the transcendent one makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of the inferior living beings."

And everybody, Thurman tells us, goes wild.

And then the Buddha picks up his toe, and it looks like the ordinary world again.