An Interview With Dr Robert Thurman, Professor Of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies At Columbia University
Dr. Robert Thurman is, how should I say this… scary smart. Anyone who’s read his work knows that, and if you haven’t, I feel it’s only fair to give you the heads up before you read on. The following interview was conducted on Nov. 9, 2010 at Dr Thurman’s Columbia University office in Manhattan, NY. Here’s a few more points of interest…
Robert Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, President of Tibet House US, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization, and President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies.
The New York Times recently hailed him as “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” The first American to have been ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a personal friend of the Dalai Lama for over 40 years, Professor Thurman is a passionate advocate and spokesperson for the truth regarding the current Tibet-China situation and the human rights violations suffered by the Tibetan people under Chinese rule. His commitment to finding a peaceful, win-win solution for Tibet and China inspired him to write his latest book,Why the Dalai Lama Matters: of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World, published in June of 2008.
The Dr Robert Thurman Interview
TIS: There’s a Buddhist saying “no self, no problem”. While it sounds simple enough, I think it may be one of the hardest things to accomplish in the human experience. Can you talk a little about this?
RT: I don’t think it’s that hard. First of all, “no self” doesn’t mean there is no self, haha. So the “no problem” is jumped at a little too fast I’m afraid. Especially in American culture where people tend to be materialistic philosophically. I don’t mean running to the mall, but philosophically, you see? The idea that somehow “no self, no problem”- I don’t exist because I don’t have a self- would be a mistaken understanding. However, the selflessness teaching is not that hard to understand. What it means is a type of self that people feel they have, like a fixed, unchanging identity. Either they know they have it, or for some, they feel they need to seek it, and possibly have an experience where they feel like they found something. That type of fixed, unchanging, essential self, or absolute self doesn’t exist. That’s what “no self” means. However, the being that discovers their freedom from that kind of rigid self-identity does exist, and does have a self, a relational self that changes all the time, with what we call a conventional self.
The great masters of Indian-Tibetan traditions were the best about this. The saying “no self, no problem” probably comes from Zen. In their cultures, where Buddhism is kind of taken for granted, as well as karma, causality, former and future life, and the possibility for becoming enlightened, then it’s safe to skirt the danger of nihilism, which would be, I don’t exist because Buddha said I have no self, and therefore I have no problem because I don’t exist. That would be a bad misunderstanding. But in those cultures, it would not be as easy to have that understanding as it would be here in the west, where we really are nihilistic.
Most people think they’re working for this life and whatever success, or experiences, or understandings they can achieve. Our culture indoctrinates us to think only about what can happen in this life, and that’s because of the spiritual nihilism of the culture. So now, on the very highest level, you can understand the selflessness idea very easily, which only means that there’s no non-relative thing that is relevant to a relative person. Therefore, a relative or conventional person, constantly changing and interrelating with everything, can’t interrelate with a non-relational thing, because it’s non-relational. The feeling of being something that is ultimately non-relational is an alienating thing, and it’s also impossible.
You can’t relate to an absolute or it wouldn’t be absolute, it would be relative. On an intellectual level, that’s easy. However, you hear theologians in the theistic traditions talk about absolute God, and I saw God, or God spoke; speaking, being seen, these are all relational things. So what is absolute about such a being, wouldn’t actually be absolute. An absolute being would be irrelevant to the world, as it couldn’t create it. Any action, or causal process that would involve them, would make them relational. An absolute is the opposite of relative. So that’s easy to understand, however, even though we understand that intellectually, which is very important to do, you don’t transform yourself completely, yet. The understanding of it is very important as a beginning point. Then you can use meditation, further reasoning, long-term familiarity etc., you can use all kinds of methods to deepen this understanding and to have it counter the instinctual sense of being an absolute you.
Struggling with the world and having the problem of you vs. the world is a really big problem. You’re going to lose because the world is so much bigger than you, and longer lasting. So that’s the process of understanding, and through that process, if you have a deep realization of the selflessness in regard to your absolute self, then it releases your relational self to be happily interconnected with everything in a blissful way. Then you yourself have “no problem” in the sense of no suffering. You reach Nirvana.
However, because of your interconnectedness with all things, other beings still have a problem, and when you realize that you have no absolute self apart from things, you realize that essentially, you are all the other beings. So although you simultaneously realize they have no absolute self in their otherness apart from being related to all things that essentially, they could be completely happily interrelated. But you then have the problem of compassion and love, which is the overflowing of the happiness you feel at being free from the prison of absolute selfhood, and realizing your relational selfhood and interconnected selfhood. You feel so happy about that, that you feel loving towards these poor being who are suffering in their separateness, and their alienation Then have the problem of how to help them get free, because just by your knowing that they’re essentially free, that doesn’t free them. Just by your being blissful, it doesn’t release them from their knot of separation and false self absolutization.
That problem has to be answered by means of art, because you can’t blast them with bliss. That freaks them out even more, haha. So instead, you have to have an artful way of approaching them. You do a dance for them, you get them to imagine being interconnected, and to imagine being free of their suffering, and not so self involved, through art that draws them out. Then you, and they, are all established in what’s called a Buddha-verse, or Buddha-land. Then there’s “no problem”, hahaha.
TIS: Phew, ok. I followed half of that. I’ll have to transcribe it and read it multiple times before fully ingesting it, haha. Can you talk about the danger of confusing spiritual experience with ultimate truth or enlightenment?
RT: Sure. A lot of people, after seeking a bit, have some experience, and sometimes will believe they’re enlightened. One has to be careful about that. Especially Americans, who are very external stimulus oriented. When they have some type of deep inner experience, often they think that was the ultimate experience. Of course Ram Dass, who used to be a psychedelic guy, knows very well about that and how every time you have a big blast-out experience you think that’s the ultimate-everything, and of course it isn’t, although you can get hints. The key however, is not to take those hint experiences to be the ultimate experience. There always needs to be a balance. For example, when you find something, by having some experience, you always want to keep looking because there could be more to it. When Milarepa was asked how he meditated, he said he used to meditate this way or that way, but that he no longer knew when he was meditating or when he wasn’t. What that meant was he was meditating all the time, and in way, he was never meditating.
TIS: You address the science of dying and the journey the soul takes thereafter in your translation of the Tibetan Book of The Dead. Can you discuss this a bit for those who are unfamiliar?
RT: First thing I’d like to say is that its real title is The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Learning in the Between. In the ancient Buddhist language and culture, they didn’t have many printed books, so you’d learn from someone orally, hence learning by listening (in the between). So the minor value of that teaching is to prepare you for the death transition. The major value is to realize that you’re dying while you’re living, and that life itself is a type of between state. All the things you need in the death transition, you need now in the life transition, because life is a transition, it is a between state. Therefore, every night when you fall asleep, it’s like you die. And every time you do, you should be using the process of falling asleep as giving up your attention to sense objects, your discursive ruminating thoughts and so on. You should use that as a process of giving up and giving yourself completely to the universe and becoming completely obliterated. You could then develop that further by keeping a journal and developing the ability to lucidly dream, which is to know that you’re dreaming when you’re dreaming. You could then use the dream to learn more about yourself, others, the world, and the nature of life. You can come awake in the matrix and realize you’re the one in your own dream. People on the spiritual path can do that, thus they can avoid wasting the whole night, and use it in a developmental, nice way.
When people are dying, they call their old enemies and try to forgive them and try to be forgiven by them. They call their old friends and affirm their love for them, as well as detach themselves from them, and they try to get into as free a space as they can so they’re really ready to go. They give away all their possessions and are as generous as possible. They give up old hatreds and grudges, and that’s a wise intuitive thing, because it’s much freer to live like that.
The point is that we should already be living like that. We should be forgiving others, and shouldn’t have enemies. We shouldn’t be over attached to people. We love them all and want them to be happy, but attachment is not the love part. The real love part is where you just want them to be happy. So I think this is the great value of the Book of the Dead and the whole science of death.
I think it’s very useful for western people also, because one of our great spiritual obstacles, which I mentioned to you in the beginning of our conversation, is how we’re brainwashed to think we don’t have a soul. Some even tend to understand Buddhist selflessness as meaning soulessness, like they’re confirming the materialism and spiritual nihilism, and there is nothing to be reborn because essentially we don’t exist, and that’s not true.
The Book of the Dead elaborates on the secret, or inner teachings of Buddhism. That there is this subtle continuum on a genetic, sub-molecular level that carries our imprint, like DNA carries the imprint of a parents bone structure etc, and this carries your imprint from previous lives. Therefore, what you do as a spiritual practitioner in this life shapes that. To seek and find this beautiful, continuing existence, where there can be more progress towards Buddha-hood, toward love, and wisdom, and helping all being etc. So that’s the great value of it.
In Buddhism, we say reincarnation is the conscious taking of rebirth by a Bodhisattva, or by a high being, whereas rebirth, is what most people do. Rebirth is an involuntary process where they seek traction by finding a new body after their subtle mind loses the old one. There are two things commonly said about this. One- there is no evidence for it and two- if there is evidence, what’s the mechanism which carries the consciousness from one life to another.
These are both very wrong because there is huge evidence. It’s not only in the testimony of enlightened people, which is there, but also in the memories of many, many children, in many cultures. Many of those peoples cultures don’t ascribe to theories of former and future life, and in most cases, those memories don’t give them any advantage. It’s not like they get on Larry King Live. They don’t write a book and make money. Often, it’s very awkward for them, to have to deal with a previous family, or right a previous wrong from a past life, which is painful to acknowledge. So that’s a huge amount of evidence.
The second thing these people say is, well, even if there is some evidence, what is the mechanism whereby you can have the continuity of consciousness in another life? We know some things about the mechanism of DNA. We know how that carries on peoples genetic patterns. It’s really complicated though. We have our Genome Project. It was only recently discovered, but there is a mechanism. The science of the Book of the Dead comes from the Abhidharmic Science of Buddhism. Long before the Book of Natural Liberation or the Book of the Dead was composed, and left in Tibet for the Tibetans by Padmasambhava, which is of great value of it. It gives a picture of the mechanism of how it works, which in itself is really useful.
As far as people who were actually dying and had never heard of it before, or how useful it is for people in our culture, it was questionable. Although in a way, if you just get people ready, and to acknowledge that they are going to see a lot of things, and not to cling to the old sense organs or old body, and just let themselves go free and not be afraid helps. If you see really bright lights, or hear really loud noises, go towards them, don’t run away from anything. It’s like giving someone instructions on how to handle a bear, don’t run away from it. Stand up and try to make yourself look as big as possible. Don’t give it the signal that it should chase you. And that’s the case with the after death visions. Don’t go for dark seductive lights, go only for bright lights. I think that helps people, even if they are skeptical while they are alive, which is a result of the way they’ve been conditioned in their materialist culture. If they know to expect something to happen to their consciousness after they’ve died and left the body, it’s good for them. Then they are ready and on their toes. The instruction not to fear things is a really big one. That state is like being in a dream. Even though something comes at you, which seems fierce, frightening or crushing, like an earthquake, it can’t hurt you. You’re a subtle body.
The Tibet House and Menla have organized many Art of Dying conferences. We’ve been dealing for many years with people in the hospice movement, Zen hospices, medical hospices etc, and helping people die. I haven’t spent that much time with people dying myself, a few times. I’ve found this to be very helpful to those people though, to have this kind of model in their mind. Of course one urges them that thy don’t have to believe in this, or that they’re going to see this or that kind of Buddhist deity. That would be silly if they were Muslim or another faith. But it’s important to be prepared for visions and dreamlike experiences.
TIS: So if someone is not Buddhist, should they expect to see visions of saints or deities from their particular faith?
RT: I think so. In the Book of Natural Liberation it says if you’re not a great Yogi, you can’t do all these meditative things, so to at least pray to be protected by the Lord of Great Compassion, which is Avalokiteshvara or Tara. So that’s what they could expect, and maybe some light energy being would come to them and they’d be in the form of Avalokiteshvara. If they’re Christian, it could be Jesus. If they’re Muslim, they’d have trouble seeing it as Mohammed because they don’t believe in having any humanoid image, but they may see it as a glowing light or golden energy. If they’re Jewish it might be Moses or one of the Kabbalistic mystics. In Hindu it may be Krishna or a Swami, or Lao-Tzu if they’re Taoist, or a Jade Empress, whatever they expect really. These beings are there to help them and want to appear in whatever from is comfortable to them and trust invoking, as they need to go with them.
TIS: Very good to know. So I’ve often wondered how spiritual teachers such as yourself, or even people like your co-founders of The Tibet House, actor Richard Gere & composer Phillip Glass, reconcile your egos with fame? Is it just more grist for the proverbial mill?
RT: Well the first thing I’d like to say is that we shouldn’t have an idea that the goal of spiritual practice is to annihilate ones ego, that would be a mistake. In the early years of enlightenment, psychologists were afraid of Hindus and Buddhists meditating because they thought they were going to shatter their egos and then they’d have to wear diapers or something, like they’d lose their toilet training or what have you. They were really afraid of it. The point is that you free the ego. The ego is only a pronoun. It’s a Greek first person pronoun, ergo. When you’re in Greece you say, Ergo wants to take a bus, and you don’t mean your ego wants to take a bus, like some big entity, you only mean I want to take a bus.
In Buddhist ideology, the conventional self is that which is constructed in a way by the use of the pronoun, and when you realize there is no absolute ego there, no disconnected one, self, or ego, then that actually strengthens your conventional ego. It does so in the sense that then you realize it’s a construction, and you can strengthen it in order to help others, or do whatever you’re trying to do, it’s not like you no longer know who you are. Then you can organize your behavior by using your ego, as it’s now the pronoun.
You have to be responsible for yourself, refer to yourself, develop yourself, help others, whatever it may be. So we shouldn’t have an idea that the whole thing is to shatter ones ego. Actually there’s a very bad trend in some cults about how Guru’s are supposed to be mean to their students, and there are some who revel in this and are abusive. I’m afraid my dear friend Ken Wilber tends to fall for these Gurus all the time. There’s been several that he’s been involved with, whose names I won’t specifically mention, but he excuses that behavior. He is definitely a brilliant person, although I think he’s a bit caught up in the glory of his own jargon to a certain extent, but he’s obviously brilliant, no question, and I’ve always loved him. For some reason though, which I don’t know why, maybe some level of insecurity, or it has to do with his father, he tends to love these gurus who are very authoritarian. He promotes them, and then when they abuse their disciples and the disciples return to Ken and says hey, this guy you said was so great and divine, emptied my bank account and beat me up, he was awful to me. Ken may then say, well you’re just complaining because you don’t want your ego shattered.
So there’s a very negative thing about ego shattering. There have been a few Tibetan llama’s who’ve been abusive in that way and played that game. The better teachers recognize that by freeing yourself of the rigid ego identity habit, you actually strengthen the resilient, flexible, creative ego, and you then can be more effective in helping others, and creative in whatever work you do. You’re more responsible ethically for being there with your interconnection to the world, but the you now is an always changing one, and you’re responsible for how you change it. It’s very important to understand that whole thing about the ego.
Now another aspect of your question of course is, if you become a little famous at some stage, or if you accomplish some things that people praise and then you let it go to your head, you then become egotistical, which of course you should try not to. Richard & Phillip are truly famous celebrities and I am not. I’m just a college professor. When someone comes and praises you, you have to take it with a grain of salt and realize they’re just seeing it from the moment, because they may freak out some other time and decide it’s your fault and hate you, so you shouldn’t be attached to either one. It’s more about them and not you. You should stay even keel and keep your balance. But it isn’t a matter of acting enlightened and talking in ummodulated tones or acting sanctimonious. I hate that. If my kids ever caught me doing that, they’d kick me.
TIS: Yeah, that’s always been a big turn off for me. So I wanted to ask you about The Penchan Lama, who plays a key role in finding, and naming future incarnations of The Dalai Lama (and vice versa). The 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama as recognized by HH The Dalai Lama is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The Peoples Republic of China asserts however, that the Panchen Lama is Qoigyijabu (Gyancain Norbu). Shortly after being named the 11th Panchen Lama by HH, Chinese authorities took Gedhun Choekyi Nyima into “protective custody”. To this day however, The Peoples Republic of China have not released information regarding from what, or from whom, he must be protected, where he is being held, or under what conditions. Where does this leave the future of Buddhism?
RT: Well when HH passes on, he will incarnate again and there will be a new one. There will be a period where we won’t have the genius, wonderful 75 year old lucid, inspiring man. During that time there will be a child somewhere being educated, who I’m sure will be a marvelous, wonderful child. There will be other senior teachers working who are very good in that inter-meaning time as well, but HH is not going anywhere for quite a while. I believe there’s a lot of global pressures all over the place which will hopefully encourage the Chinese to change their policy fairly soon, before HH dies, and benefit from his kind presence and learn from his intelligence.
The Chinese people absolutely need good spiritual examples. They also could use a citizen of their own, who is free and happy, and pleased with them, and represents them in a positive way to the world. Especially now that they’re becoming this mega-power, and no longer known as a puppet in the game, or strictly business people. They will need a sympathetic intercessor with other people in the world to avoid conflict and create trust, and of course, Dalai Lama would be ideal. In another ten years from now though, he won’t have the time to be really effective for them. They’re truly wasting their time not using him now.
I wrote a book called Why The Dalai Lama Matters in which I present a win-win scenario for the Chinese where they could absolutely take advantage of this, and would be tremendously in their best interest to do so, without losing anything. If the president of China decided to make this change, he’d be like Gorbachev without losing the Ukraine and without losing the affection of his countrymen. Poor Gorbachev is blamed by the right winger’s in his country as losing the Soviet Union Empire and the Ukraine. But China’s president would gain Tibet legitimately and not have to pretend, like they are now. The Dalai Lama has said if they get their colonizers off the back of the Tibetans, and let the Tibetans control their economy, environment, and spiritual and cultural lives, then the Tibetans would be very happy and willing contributing citizens of The Peoples Republic of China as a federated, autonomous province.
They are in name an autonomous province, part of Tibet anyway, but in reality, they are not, and everyone knows that. That’s why the Tibetan’s oppose the Chinese. If China implemented these changes, Tibet would be totally in favor of the Chinese, and China would have the creative energy of the Tibetans, and their high profile to benefit them as well.
So what it really boils down to, is the Chinese leadership is controlled fear. Surprisingly, as everyone thinks they’re so powerful. They’re afraid of their own people and they have really bad PR advice. I’m giving them free and excellent PR advice, and while they’re yet to accept it, I hope and believe they will soon.
TIS: As do I. Thank you so much for your time Dr Thurman, it’s been an honor.
RT: Thank you, Chris.