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An Interview with Robert Thurman, The West's First Buddhist Monk

Perhaps most widely-known as the father of Uma, Robert Thurman discusses his friend the Dalai Lama and how Hitler could have been defeated without violence.

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—Jane Ratcliffe for Guernica

Guernica: You write and speak a lot about nonviolence, but it’s often in broad terms such as engaging in “kindness” and “generosity.” But how do we apply these concepts in a concrete manner? For instance, what do you do if somebody breaks into your house while you’re home and they’re armed?

Robert Thurman: You have to oppose whoever it is. You have a right to defend yourself and you should try. But you should try to do it with minimal violence. For example, if you’re in a place where the breaking in is very, very likely, I guess you should be well trained in martial arts. You should be well armed and well trained about the arm, then hopefully not use it. Or if you have to use it, shoot for the legs. Be like Grasshopper, if you remember the old Carradine show Kung Fu. You should be forceful in opposing and defending, but without hatred.

Guernica: So there are circumstances where violence is acceptable?

Robert Thurman: Yes, of course. If someone has broken in and they’re going to kill you and everyone else, then you’re letting violence happen by being passive. Nonviolence, it should be understood, is a forceful method of accomplishing things and diffusing conflict. It is not a surrender to conflict, or a surrender to others’ violence at all. Even when they used the word “passive” in the old Gandhi days, they called it passive resistance. Which means resistance.

Guernica: [I was] listening to NPR today, [and] they were talking about how many children these days are bullied in school. What would you teach your children if you were trying to teach them about nonviolent practices, but you want them to be safe?

Robert Thurman: If you bring your children up to defend themselves and also to have some of what is called “emotional intelligence,” the likelihood of being bullied is lessened because they will be making less waves and will be less aggressive with people. If you’re in a situation where your child is being bullied, you go to the school administrators and see what you can do about it. Go find your local Tai Kwon Do or Judo or Karate or whatever it is so they can develop more physical self-confidence. Then if that doesn’t work, you change schools, of course. There is no general rule. But again, they have a right to defend themselves. If they are defending themselves against violence, it’s not violence, actually. It is minimizing violence, because the other person doing it, if they’re bullying you, they’re bullying other people.

Guernica: So why wouldn’t that same rule of thumb apply to a situation like Tibet? Why can’t the Tibetans fight to get their country back?

Robert Thurman: They did defend themselves. They tried. The Buddhist rule is if someone invades your country and you have the capability of repelling the invasion, you should. Then you should not pursue them back into their country. When they see that you can push them out, and that you’re stronger than them, then they see that you could invade them. And then you don’t, and you try to create a treaty so they don’t do that another time. If you can’t resist them because their force is overwhelming, you should not. Because if by resisting them, you’ll kill some of them on the way in, they’ll be more violent and angry when they occupy you, and they’ll cause more violence and destruction. You should just surrender if you don’t have the effective means of self-defense. And then you should try to resist their domination nonviolently.

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