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.
Four days later, Thurman is standing onstage at Carnegie Hall, belting Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” into a single microphone alongside Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Philip Glass, and Rahzel, the rapper, human beatbox, and former member of the Roots. It’s the grand finale of the 23rd annual Tibet House benefit concert, which also featured tUnE-yArDs, Ariel Pink, a group of chanting monks, and ‘This American Life’ host Ira Glass. Smith headlined, and everyone has returned to the stage for a group rendition of her late-1980s hit, which, despite its undeniable corniness, has aged into an oddly stirring anthem. Afterward, the party shifts to the Plaza, a mausoleum of old Manhattan opulence, where a grand ballroom has been draped with Tibetan flags and wealthy donors line up for an Indian-themed buffet. During his introduction to the concert, Thurman had reassured the crowd that the reality of the world was bliss, while “the mess of it” had been created by our ignorance. “Try,” he exhorted the concertgoers, flashing an impish grin, “to imagine this is a world of bliss.”
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.
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.”
After spending two years as a monk, Thurman gave up his robes. The Dalai Lama was pissed (Thurman’s word), though the pair eventually reconciled. (“The Tibetans were in exile,” Thurman told Arthur Magida, “and [the Dalai Lama] had thought that I – their first Western monk – was a great hope for them.”) Thurman met his current wife, Nena, at a party in New York. He says they were considered the least likely couple: the ex-model and the ex-monk. “Nena, who later became a psychotherapist, was strikingly beautiful, posing in magazines like ‘Vogue.'” She also had been married, briefly, to Timothy Leary. They met at Leary’s annual Fourth of July party in upstate New York, marrying three days after they took LSD together. When I ask about his own youthful experiments with drugs, Thurman pauses, then says, “I knew where they were at, you could say.” Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception‘ had become a psychedelic bible at the time, and Thurman understood the way drugs could open certain doors. But that only made him more excited about going to India and learning about things like deep meditation, as opposed to “just being flung into the maelstrom by temporary chemical derangement.”
Another thing Thurman and Timothy Leary have in common is their willingness to blur the line between public intellectual and evangelizing populist. In Thurman’s lifetime, understanding of Buddhism in the West has moved from the countercultural (the Beats, Ram Dass) to the mainstream (NFL stars meditating, suburban moms doing yoga, massively popular bands agitating on behalf of Tibet), and Thurman himself has had a significant role in the heightened awareness.
Perhaps because of his famous daughter, Thurman has an unabashed attraction to Hollywood, and remains convinced that film has the potential to teach great masses of people about Buddhism. His unproduced treatments include another ‘Matrix’ sequel (which he actually pitched to Joel Schumacher, the first three Matrixes already being a nifty Buddhist metaphor), an effects-laden biopic about the Buddha, and a post-Kundun biopic about the Dalai Lama. None of his pitches, which he says Uma “brushes off,” strike me as particularly promising. He’s also sold a script idea to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ director David O. Russell, a former student of Thurman’s at Amherst – it’s an action film called ‘Psychonauts,’ spanning the multiple lives of a single hero – and he even has a couple of pitches for his daughter’s longtime friend and collaborator Quentin Tarantino. (He loved ‘Django Unchained’ and has watched both ‘Kill Bill’ films many times, even though Uma initially tried to convince him not to. He will admit the scene where she plucks out Daryl Hannah’s eyeball was, for obvious reasons, pretty rough to sit through.)
Thurman also ventures out of the Ivory Tower quite frequently to comment on politics, in a manner some might consider indiscreet – making YouTube videos blasting Congressional Republicans, for example, or telling me that he “knows” George W. Bush “is very unhappy – deeply unhappy, actually. I think he should start drinking again, myself.” When we get to talking about the climate change conference in Norway, Thurman goes on a tear about how he’s convinced that the shortsighted profiteers enriching themselves from the fossil-fuel industry are literally giving themselves cancer – that their cognizance of the harm they are wreaking upon the planet is killing them. We’re talking a few weeks before the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who governed over huge oil reserves. Thurman says, “Look at Chavez. He’s finished. He’s a young guy – what is he, 58? He’s a little overweight. But he’s dead. All of these guys, their knowledge that they are doing unnecessarily evil things is giving them cancer!”
The lack of progress made by the Free Tibet movement, which gained popularity in the West in the Nineties thanks to people like Thurman and the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, would seem like an obvious area of disappointment, but Thurman remains “very positive.” Tibet, he insists, will “inevitably be free, because it is in China’s self-interest for Tibet to be free. The current Chinese policy of crushing Tibet is really the result of bad PR advice. It makes them look ridiculous. In the end, they always respond when you actually put pressure on them. They wanted to make government-sponsored labor unions in the last decade, but when Walmart said, ‘We’re leaving if you do,’ they didn’t! The Chinese government is very impressionable.”
Thurman’s impolity when it comes to China’s occupation of Tibet has led the Dalai Lama’s inner circle to keep the old friends apart in recent years. “They think that I’m a little bit of a firebrand, and the Dalai Lama gets pumped up when we spend time together,” Thurman says. “And there’s a little bit of what you’d call an ‘appeasement faction’ in the Tibetan government-in-exile. ‘Don’t rattle the Chinese. Maybe they’ll be nice later if we are polite.’ So they advise the Dalai Lama to not call them out. And I’m considered a caller-outer.”
These days, the old friends usually see each other once or twice a year. Their relationship shifted around 1980, when the older monks who’d taught them both in Dharamsala began dying off and the Dalai Lama took their place, becoming Thurman’s guru. “Although he’s not a pompous person,” Thurman says, “he can get up on a throne for a formal teaching and be like Buddha himself. And then he can sit at a table like we’re doing and just chat, no bullshit, and he doesn’t act like a deity at all.”
The pair still argue, like back in the old days. The Dalai Lama enjoys being challenged, or so he’s told Thurman, though the latter points out that “he’s become a little not quite so used to it.” Once Thurman berated his friend for not taking a more overtly political leadership role among the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama wouldn’t hear of it, said he didn’t want to become a prisoner of fame like Princess Diana. Thurman said it sounded like a certain old Dalai Lama was feeling lazy, and that he was confident the next Dalai Lama would be willing to make decisions for his people. Eventually the Dalai Lama ended the argument. He told Thurman to shut up.
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?”
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.
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.