A conversation with Robert Thurman
When the Dalai Lama Accepted the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global human rights -- particularly for his ceaseless efforts to free his country from Chinese rule -- he referred to himself as "a simple monk from Tibet." But His Holiness is also the spiritual and political leader of 6 million Tibetans, who believe him to be the 14th earthly incarnation of the heavenly deity of compassion and mercy. Like his 13 predecessors, he works for the regeneration and continuation of the Tibetan Vajrayana branch of Buddhist tradition.
Born in 1935, Tenzin Gyatso was recognized at the age of 2 as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and by age 19 he was negotiating with China's Mao Tse-tung over the future of Tibet, which China invaded in 1950 and has occupied ever since. After years of failed peace talks and a violent suppression of Tibet's resistance movement in which tens of thousands of Tibetans died, the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 to Dharamsala, India, where he continues to be the spiritual leader of Tibet's people and heads Tibet's government-in-exile.
Robert A. F. Thurman was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1964 by the Dalai Lama. He is currently the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. A respected scholar and translator of Tibetan and Sanskrit, Thurman is also the author of Essential Tibetan Buddhism (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) and the forthcoming Inner Revolution: The Politics of Enlightenment (Riverhead Books, 1998). As the co-founder and president of Tibet House New York, Thurman has worked closely with the Dalai Lama on making Buddhism accessible to Americans and on educating the West about Tibet's political struggles against China. Today, Buddhism is flourishing in America: The religion has an estimated 1.5 million followers. Meanwhile, Tibet has captured the attention of Hollywood through Richard Gere and other celebrity Buddhists who have helped raise money for and awareness about Tibet's plight. This fall a pair of films about Tibet's spiritual and political history -- Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, and Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt -- hit the screens.
The following conversation took place at His Holiness the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala in August.
Robert Thurman: Is there something about America that makes so many people seek out and practice Buddhism?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama: I don't know. Why are you so interested? [Laughs] No, seriously, I feel that Americans are interested because they are open-minded. They have an education system that teaches them to find out for themselves why things are the way they are. Open-minded people tend to be interested in Buddhism because Buddha urged people to investigate things -- he didn't just command them to believe.
Also, your education tends to develop the brain while it neglects the heart, so you have a longing for teachings that develop and strengthen the good heart. Christianity also has wonderful teachings for this, but you don't know them well enough, so you take interest in Buddhism! [Laughs] Perhaps our teachings seem less religious and more technical, like psychology, so they are easier for secular people to use.