The plight of the Tibetan people, whose cultural and religious heritage has been steadily undermined since their country was invaded by the Chinese government in 1950, has become a cause celebre for the likes of Richard Gere, Mia Farrow and K.D. Lang. At the center of that effort has been Robert Thurman, an influential and prolific American Buddhist scholar and activist who is a long-time friend of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile.
Thurman, 66, the Je Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, has devoted his life to the study and preservation of Tibet’s unique cultural heritage. He is the author of several books on Tibetan Buddhism and the co-founder, along with Gere, of New York’s Tibet House. Thurman was chosen as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans in 1997.
At a time when the world has been particularly focused on Tibet since the territory erupted in mass protests this spring, Thurman has come out with a new book, “Why the Dalai Lama Matters,” to present his view on how the conflict can be resolved. In the book, he argues that establishing Tibetan cultural and religious autonomy — while keeping Tibet as a part of China — is a benefit to Tibet, China and the world at large. I caught up with Thurman last week while he was visiting the Bay Area on a book tour.
The news from Tibet has been pretty grim lately, but you remain optimistic that the situation will improve … that the Tibetans will one day be able to live there freely and practice their religion. What gives you hope that will happen?
I base my hope — as the Dalai Lama bases his — on what is realistic. And I believe reality dictates that the Tibetans are the ones who can live sustainably in Tibet. They’re the ones who can restore and maintain the Tibetan plateau, their ancestral home, as they have for thousands of years. And it has to be healthy in order to be of benefit to its neighboring regions. It’s the water tower of Asia — it’s where everybody’s water comes from, India, China, Southeast Asia. It’s also the source of the wind — the jet stream that rises up out of the plateau, affecting the weather all around the planet. So if Tibet is messed up then the world gets messed up. This is why Tibet should matter to everybody.
Why are the Tibetans the only ones who can take care of Tibet?
In part, because it’s three miles above sea level. If Chinese people could live up there comfortably, they would have been there 500 years ago in huge numbers. They are not genetically adapted to live at that high altitude without serious health problems.
You argue in your latest book, “Why the Dalai Lama Matters,” that the Dalai Lama could be one of China’s greatest assets. What is it that he can offer them?
He’s a great asset for several reasons. First, he is the key to giving them legitimate sovereignty over Tibet as an autonomous region within China because he would inspire his people to vote that way. Secondly, he can help to restore some sense of contentment and calm within the Chinese populace, especially among those who are poor and have not yet benefitted from China’s economic rise. Thirdly, he could become a true ambassador for China in the world, which they are going to need increasingly as they rise to true superpower status.
And you think the Chinese government will eventually see this?
Yes, I am hopeful because the Chinese are smart, pragmatic people. In fact, the leaders have never actually met the Dalai Lama face to face. I am confident that once they do that there will be a shift in their thinking.
Many people, including you, have described Chinese actions against the Tibetan people as genocide. How do you make peace with people who want to wipe you out?
I don’t think the Chinese people do want to wipe them out. I do think they want to assimilate them — which is cultural genocide. That’s what they’ve done to other neighboring peoples and tribes throughout their history, by bringing them into their language and their way of living. The big trend around the world since the ’90s has been that people are demanding self-determination, whether it’s Kosovo or Lithuania or Ukraine, and the Chinese realize that the trend is very hard to stop. So they want to get rid of Tibetans because the Tibetans are living, cultural proof that Tibet doesn’t legitimately belong to China. It’s a sad situation, but it isn’t any one person’s fault. It’s just a mistaken policy by the country’s leaders. And that policy could be turned around with the stroke of a pen — President Hu’s pen.
Many Tibetans want independence from China, but the Dalai Lama has embraced something called the middle way. What is that, exactly?
The middle way, which is a central concept in Buddhism, is the path between, on the one hand, demanding independence fruitlessly when no one will give it to you, and, on the other hand, caving in and saying, “Let’s become Chinese.” It means establishing Tibet as a free, self-governing region within China because that is the only realistic solution.
Understand that the Dalai Lama himself says that he wants independence, too. I mean, people want to be free. That’s what anybody would want. On the other hand, he is a pragmatist, and it is a deeply important thing to the Chinese leadership to feel that they have what you might call a “big map” profile. So why bother to have paper independence and then be isolated and persecuted and starved and get nowhere? Better to join up with a big power in a federation and have their help in your development. So far the Chinese leadership has only used Tibet as a resource depot and a place to colonize. Their big investment has been to bring Chinese into Tibet rather than to help the Tibetans. But they could help them. And that’s needed, because the Tibetans have been driven into great destitution by their country being taken over by outsiders.
Some people say that the Dalai Lama should just stick to religion, but you see him as a great statesman. Why?
What makes him a great statesman is that he understands this century. This is no longer the age of 19th century imperialism or 20th century economic imperialism. It’s the information age, a time of pluralistic societies where people are mixing around in every which way, immigrating around the globe and learning about what’s going on in other places. Even if they are dirt poor, they often have access to TVs or computers. You simply can’t dominate people in the same ways that were once possible. And wars are no longer viable. You just can’t win them. The Dalai Lama is the one who understands that, I believe, and dares to say it.
The Dalai Lama says: Nonviolence is it. You destroy yourselves if you destroy your neighbor. And this is an ethical principle to be acted on by governments and people. They are saying that he is naive, and that violence is the truth — but that’s an outmoded view.
You became a Buddhist as a young man. I read that you made this decision after having an accident where you lost the sight in your left eye. What was the connection?
When I lost my eye, it was a big shock, and a big tragedy and all that. I was very unhappy. Yet it was a wonderful thing in that it jolted me out of my complacent life. I was a Harvard student who had married young, with a beautiful daughter and a bit of money. I was running around a lot, riding motorcycles — I could easily have run something off a cliff. I was earnestly reading the Buddhist sutras and “Siddhartha” and thinking about the Great Quest, but I was really just fooling around. So what the eye loss did was make me realize this is serious. Life is over in the blink of an eye or can be, and what does it mean? What is it really? And that sent me an on a quest to India because I sensed there was something there that wasn’t in New York or Massachusetts. And while on that quest, I found the Buddhist philosophers that I really liked and have been liking ever since.
I love Buddhist thought because I believe it’s the most scientific and the most realistic way of thinking. And the religious part of it, well, I am still not even that terribly religious, I think; in a way, I’m against dogmatic beliefs, and so I like Buddhism because it is also against dogmatic beliefs and fanaticism, and it’s into experiencing reality as one way to be a little bit less unhappy.
I read something that your daughter, Uma Thurman, said recently: “My father didn’t impose his religion on us as children to the point that maybe it would have been nice to have a little more. Something to rebel against.” What do you think about that?
(Laughs.) It’s true. I give my wife a lot of credit because when I was younger I might have been a little more oppressively enthusiastic, like a country preacher or something. And she made sure that didn’t happen. I also give the Dalai Lama credit in that he taught me that it is a mistake at this time in history to even think that somebody should convert to your worldview. You can argue with people or hope that they will understand things as you see them. But you can’t force it.
You were ordained in 1965 as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama, but you later abandoned that life. What changed your mind?
I had been living as a monk for about two or three years before I was ordained — and my old Mongolian teacher said, “Don’t formally ordain because you won’t stay.” He knew I was totally sincere in wanting to stay, but he just knew the circumstances, which I didn’t. In Tibetan society it is considered very easy and very much a privilege to be a monk. But people don’t often leave it, and there is a big stigma attached to leaving it. So the old lama said, “Don’t do it.” He even told the Dalai Lama, “This boy is very sincere, and he wants to be a monk just so he can study more, but it is not a good idea.”
When I got back to America from India, we were in the throes of the Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement. All my friends from college were out there, either getting beaten up in the South marching with Martin Luther King or they were stoned or they were in fact fighting the war and running to Canada, and it was a really turbulent time. I got restless and wanted to be more of an activist. And I soon discovered that there was no support in our society at that time for anybody to be a Buddhist monk. It was considered a complete cop-out — people thought you must be crazy. I had no way of representing the wonderful ideas and practices I had discovered, and so, sure enough, I decided to offer back my robe because I recognized I had made a mistake.
How did the Dalai Lama react to your decision?
He was kind of upset with me for a couple of years until we met again, and then he got to know my family, and he realized I was still very secure in my study, and I was going to be a professor. Then we became good friends again.
We’re still living in turbulent times. How does Buddhism make sense of the upheaval and chaos of the world, and how do you incorporate that perspective into your daily life?
Chaos is something that we imagine is there and we fear, and therefore we strain ourselves to maintain some sort of order because we think we are different from the universe — we think the universe is therefore kind of dangerous, but it isn’t. From the Buddhist perspective, the nature of things is really all right. And that gives me the energy to take action. There is a great teaching in the Shantideva tradition about how to conquer anger, which is: You don’t let anything disturb your good mood. You try to be cheerful in all cases. You try to do your best about something. Why be bitter and hateful about some bad thing that’s already happened? It’s a brilliant teaching.
Maybe I’m just imitating the Dalai Lama, but I think that is his secret of how he has kept up for 50 years. People do ask him, “The Tibetan people are badly oppressed and wandering in exile, and you haven’t managed to stop this. How do you keep trying and not give up? You are so cheerful. How do you do it?” And he says, “Well, because everything is all right, really.” It’s not all right on the superficial level in terms of the way people are living, and we better keep after them to try to get them to recognize that it can be all right, but ultimately it is all right, and what good does it do to be miserable, to act angry, to say that we have to destroy the bad people and be like them?
Buddhists believe that it takes lifetimes to reach the level of someone like the Dalai Lama. How can spiritual practice really help in the here and now?
Well, here I resort to my American guru Bill Murray. As he demonstrates in the film “Groundhog Day,” it’s all about taking baby steps. You know? Bit by bit. We can be a little less angry, a little less greedy and dissatisfied, a little more insightful.
You said before you have gotten a glimpse of Nirvana. What did you mean by that?
I think we all have our moments, those kinds of poetic moments, where you get a glimmer of truth about the way things are. You know, you read Emily Dickinson or you get into an Emily Dickinson world where she sees heaven in a dewdrop on a plant in the early morning in her garden. You feel you are there, you know? But unfortunately not all of the time. Being there all of the time is what Buddhahood is, where you can be in the middle of Highway 101, zooming along, shifting lanes, trying to get to an appointment, and yet you are in Nirvana.
This interview was conducted by David Ian Miller and appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, 16 June 2008.