An Interview with Robert Thurman, The West's First Buddhist Monk
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
For more articles like this, read Guernica Magazine.
Robert Thurman’s journey toward his own inner peace—which he admits he hasn’t “fully mastered, of course” —began in 1961 when he lost his left eye in an accident. His becoming one of Time’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans also likely followed from this accident—as a result of which, Thurman dropped out of Harvard, divorced his wife—an heiress unsupportive of his new zeal—and wandered, quite literally, through India, Iran, and Turkey. While wandering in 1964, Thurman met the Dalai Lama (a.k.a. His Holiness), and thus began the remarkable friendship that thrives today. The Dalai Lama invited Thurman, who had become fluent in Tibetan in ten weeks, to Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan exile community, and arranged for him to study Buddhism with his own senior tutor. The following year, Thurman was ordained by His Holiness himself—taking 252 vows that focused on a philosophy of nonviolence, compassion, and selflessness—making him the first Tibetan Buddhist monk born in the West.
Eventually, Thurman became homesick and returned to the States. An outsider now with his shaved head and maroon robes, his desire to help others was thwarted by his skepticism over “the usefulness in American society of trying to help others as a monk (as opposed to a layperson in a university).”
Convinced he would be of more benefit as a teacher, he resigned his vows, returned to Harvard, earned three degrees, and embarked upon academic life, all without giving up his rigorous daily Buddhist practices. He married Nena von Schlebrugge, a model and Timothy Leary’s former wife; they had four children, one of whom starred in the ultra violent films Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Uma.
Born and raised in New York City, where he still lives, Thurman “was the middle son of three boys and tended to try to reconcile conflicts and negotiate peace in an emotionally turbulent family.” Now sixty-eight, reconciling conflicts and negotiating peace are still top concerns. Tall and handsome in a rumpled sort of way, with that unblinking glass eye, Thurman’s booming intellect, thunderous voice, and penchant for rolling with an answer until the proverbial cows come home is enough to leave one, well, scared of him. But in truth, he couldn’t be a nicer guy. Hobnobber with Washington, Hollywood, and the academic elite, at the end of the day he just wants you to call him Bob.
Currently, Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University; not only is he one of Time magazine’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans (and one of New York Magazine’s The Influentials); the New York Times also dubbed him “the leading American expert of Tibetan Buddhism.” He is an outspoken advocate for the liberation of Tibet and co-founder (along with Richard Gere) of Tibet House; and he is tireless in his efforts to awaken others to the teachings of the Buddha. As translator of countless complex Tibetan Buddhist texts into easy-ish to follow English ones, Thurman has quite possibly done more to heighten awareness of Tibetan Buddhism in the West than anyone outside of the Dalai Lama. His most recent book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World, lays out a game plan for peace between China and Tibet.
Like the Dalai Lama, Thurman believes in a human religion of kindness; he believes, too, we can all have happiness—true happiness, not the fleeting sort of thing that shiny new objects or a night of passion brings. Happiness, rather, that grows from helping others; help that grows from compassion and kindness and generosity; all of which grow from a philosophy of nonviolence. But as violence across the globe appears to be on the rise, it begs the question whether this sort of talk is responsible, let alone feasible. I recently spoke with Thurman by phone from his home in Woodstock.