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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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Robert Thurman: Yes, but until people are better educated, you’re going to need some police. We have surgical violence within nonviolence. Buddhism is pragmatic; it’s not fanatic. It’s not like, come kill me everybody and have a good time. You used the break-in thing, like they did to poor Dukakis. He lost his election on that: “I’d kick his butt. I’d shoot him if I could.” Which he humanly is kind of allowed to do. But the key is, don’t shoot him with hatred. Shooting him compassionately in his kneecaps will do.

Guernica: What if you shoot with fear?

Robert Thurman: Fear can be good, actually. If you have a little more training about your emotions and you’re more sensitive to them and you know how to manage them, then fear can give you adrenaline-like strength over short bursts. Hatred will also give you adrenaline-like strength, but it will exhaust you very quickly. That’s why martial arts people do not cultivate hatred. They have sayings like, you don’t hate a tiger for wanting to eat you. It’s the nature of the tiger. You fight it, but you don’t hate it. You don’t hate fire for burning you, if you’re sensible. Some people do.

The Dalai Lama used to joke about a man who worked on his car in Tibet when he was a boy. He would skin his knuckles with a wrench, you know, turning a bolt or something underneath the car, then he would angrily bash the running board from below with his head three times. Which clearly didn’t help his head and did nothing for his knuckles. And it didn’t do anything to make the car behave. So that’s a big waste of energy, but people do that and you can’t help it.

My point is nonviolence is a very practical education regime, and it works. At the moment, one third of human resources, I believe that’s the figure, are focused on militarism and violence. The combined military budgets of countries are in the trillions. And the five people in the UN who are on the Security Council with veto power are the five biggest arms dealers. They sell weapons to dictators in countries where most of the people are starving, and they spend millions of dollars buying them instead of getting food to their people. It’s ridiculous, the whole thing. If they keep it up, it will mean planetary self-destruction, there’s just no doubt about it. A lunatic like the North Korean guy, you know, or the Chinese if their own people start freaking out and the People’s Republic government has to try to cook up a war to divert their attention from the repressive stupidity of their own regime. They’ll start a war and then it could go nuclear.

Culture is a brainwashing that can be taken over by militarists or by fascists or by emperors or by churches.

Guernica: In Buddhism, human rebirth is the most precious rebirth; therefore, don’t we have to have tons of good karma to land here? If so, why are we so violent?

Robert Thurman: We’re not that violent, actually. There’s a really marvelous scene in the Gandhi movie where Gandhi had called a general nonviolent strike and in response, there was some sort of massacre by the British in the Punjab area. Also, his own people got out of hand, burned a couple of police stations, and killed the police in them. So he called the whole thing off. An American woman who was his disciple said, “How do you avoid getting too depressed or hopeless and all this?” And Gandhi said, “What I do when something terrible like this happens is I reflect on the great mass of people in the country or even in the world.” There was this one place where two or three hundred people were shot by some British, and then there were fifteen or twenty police killed by a mob in such and such other town, and other bad things probably happened here and there, probably some murders in the country and a few things. But hundreds of millions of people cooked dinner for each other, helped each other washing the dishes, helped each other cross roads, brought water from a well, restrained themselves from feeling angry with their neighbor when they might have started a fight, calmed down in some situation where they could have escalated. The larger fabric of society involves people interacting with some degree of altruism and empathy for each other, some degree of self-restraint, or the whole place would be in flames.

Guernica: How much do you believe in a person’s ability to change for the better?

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