The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana

By: Joshua Glenn
July 23, 2009

ROBERT THURMAN, who was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1964 by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is one of the world’s most respected scholars and translators of Tibetan and Sanskrit for a Western audience. I interviewed Thurman for the magazine Utne Reader in 1996.


GLENN: In the 1960s, it was the dream of many young Americans to trek off to the East and renounce the world of selfishness and acquisition. You did exactly that when you became the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk — by the exiled Dalai Lama, no less. Yet only four years later, you returned to the United States, put aside your sandals and Afghani pants for a coat and tie, and never looked back. Why?

THURMAN: After being a novice and then a monk for four years, I decided to follow the bodhisattva path (although I do not consider myself a bodhisattva), which is to seek enlightenment for the sake of others, to serve others. But being a Buddhist monk was not a suitable position, at that time, from which to command people’s respect, to engage them intellectually, or teach them, because everyone thought that an American Buddhist monk was somehow defective. There wasn’t then, and still isn’t, a real social understanding of the place of a monk in Western society. The academy is the monastery, if you will, of modern secular society, so my quitting being a monk and returning to become a professor was just a natural adaptation to America’s social reality.

I was also influenced shortly after I returned to the United States by The Vimalakirti Sutra, an ancient Buddhist scripture that I was hired to translate from Tibetan. Vimalakirti was not a monk, but an enlightened layperson who emphasized the notion of “nonduality,” which means that one doesn’t create artificial distinctions between the everyday world and some exalted state. In other words, you try to live out your nirvana in the world, not in the monastery.

8th-century Chinese image of Vimalakirti
8th-century Chinese image of Vimalakirti

GLENN: Your translation of Vimalakirti’s teachings is complex. We learn that you should strive to be neither affected by passion, desire, or hatred, nor to be free of them; you should live neither in control of your mind nor indulging it; you should be an ordinary person, yet be somehow extraordinary. But how does one function like that in the day-to-day world?

THURMAN: It is very complicated. I remember when I proudly gave a published copy of my translation to my original teacher, Geshe Wangyal, and he said, “Oh, the Vimalakirti Sutra. Are you beginning to study that?” And here I had just spent forever translating it!

What he was saying, of course, was that I would be finding new insights in that work for years to come, and he was right. As I understand Vimalakirti, he says that yes, there are all these amazing, miraculous, beautiful esoteric realities, but that they are all right here, right now, in the most ordinary things and events. It’s really a very Zenlike idea that we should strive to be aware of the immediate situation and not be dualistic, not seek nirvana somewhere out there. Nirvana is not a place, necessarily, but rather a selfless, open way of being in the world.

GLENN: The way of the bodhisattva boils down to two things, in my understanding: an awareness of “nonduality,” or what’s called sunyata, the “voidness” or emptiness of the self and all other things, on the one hand, and compassion for all creatures on the other. I’d like to return to the idea of compassion, but first I’d like to ask whether you think that it’s dangerous to teach people that the self and the whole universe are somehow void.

THURMAN: That is a very important question. The Buddha himself was, according to the great scholar Nagarjuna, very worried about teaching people about sunyata, about emptiness, since people might misinterpret it as nihilism, become confused, lose all their morals and ethics, and go around doing very negative things. But the Buddha lived in another time. In those days, people were very spiritual and lived in relatively simple societies, where everything had a traditional meaning attached to it. In this environment, the idea of sunyata was potentially very damaging. Today, however, everyone is a nihilist already. Everyone starts off with very materialistic ideas that they have no soul, no mind, just a brain floating there, with random chemical mutations determining everything. They start out in that place the Buddha worried sunyata would take people.

But voidness or emptiness is not the same thing as nihilism, by any means. The teaching of sunyata simply says that nothing exists independently, that everything and everyone depend on everything and everyone else for their existence. This teaching, rather than being a danger, is the one hope for a safeguard and a cure for today’s nihilism.

GLENN: But the Dalai Lama refers to these sorts of teachings as the “secret” teachings, because the idea that you can be enlightened without having to retreat from all the passions and activities of everyday life is a very dangerous one, especially for people who haven’t first trained, as you did. Vimalakirti, for instance, was a real man of the world, a successful businessman, a swinger, not a monk, and his example might lead others astray, right?

THURMAN: Absolutely.


GLENN: I can’t help but wonder if someone like Richard Gere, one of the founders of Tibet House New York, who recently told US magazine that he considers himself to be a sort of monk living in the world, might not be in danger of going astray as a result of being in such close contact with a person who champions such a complex form of Buddhism. Not to mention the other “celebrity Buddhists” who have become associated with Tibetan Buddhism, people like Philip Glass, Harrison Ford, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Laurie Anderson, Edie Brickell, Oliver Stone…

THURMAN: First of all, I didn’t make that much progress as a monk. I learned a lot more after coming back and having to deal with the nitty-gritty. It’s comparatively easy to be a monk in a quiet monastery, but the bodhisattva tries to engage with all the noise of the world. As far as “celebrity Buddhists” go, I can’t judge them individually, but I think celebrities are in a very interesting position. They’ve already achieved great fame, success, and wealth, and they’ve realized that those things alone don’t bring happiness; that, in fact, they can be a real pain in the neck. They have fewer illusions than the rest of us, who still imagine that worldly success is going to solve all our problems. And many of them have looked to Buddhism, which — whether it is Tibetan, Japanese, or whatever — urges you and helps you to look inside yourself for treasures and pleasures, rather than depending on some sort of external success for ratification.

Also, Richard Gere has some Tantric initiations, and he does some meditations and prostrations and so forth, but I don’t think he considers himself a great Tantric yogi or anything, or pretends to be one. I’m sure if you asked any of these celebrities point-blank, “Do you do any esoteric thing?” they’d laugh and say, “No, no…” What someone does in Tibetan Buddhism is not levitate or whatever, but try to be more humble, try to be generous, try to be tolerant of things that are irritating, a little bit, day by day. That’s where they measure their real progress.

Finally, I don’t teach people high Tantric teaching. The reason I write a bit about them is that I like everyone to know that such amazingly sophisticated things are there in the Tibetan inner sciences. But if someone wants to really study Tantra, if they’ve done some serious preliminary practice, I would refer them to His Holiness the Dalai Lama or to some other real guru.

GLENN: Then you don’t consider yourself a guru?

THURMAN: I’m not a real guru, I’m an academic professor. I may be what they call a kalyanamitra, a spiritual friend of some of these people, offering advice now and then if I’m asked. But I don’t try to take up the role of serious guru. In fact, part of choosing the professor’s or the academic’s life pattern has to do precisely with avoiding getting into the guru game with people. If I had stayed a monk, I would have had to have disciples, which gets you involved in the complications of being a guru, having people develop various kinds of transference toward you and dependencies on you, and I didn’t think that was healthy for them or for me. I was helped in the decision, of course, by my wife Nena, who always insisted on maintaining that I not get deluded about there being anything exceptional about me! She’s been a great spiritual friend of mine, and had the foresight to encourage me to pursue more mainstream academic pursuits. We’re on a pilgrimage together as much as possible.

GLENN: I’d like to get back to compassion. In the Mahayana tradition compassion is seen simply as the logical outcome of the deep understanding that all things and people and events are “void,” or interdependent. Because, logically, if you harm others when your existence is inextricably bound up with the rest of the world, then you’re also harming yourself. Your book The Politics of Enlightenment: A Handbook for Cool Revolution builds a whole politics of “engaged Buddhism” out of this idea of compassion. But it’s a very paradoxical idea: How can someone be simultaneously indifferent to the world and altruistic?

THURMAN: The concept of “engaged Buddhism” isn’t my term. I believe we first heard it from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master. But bodhicitta, the way of the bodhisattva, is exactly as you put it, the joyous and compassionate commitment to living beings born from an unwavering confrontation with the inconceivable profundity of sunyata, or emptiness. It’s an idea that goes all the way back to Sakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, himself. The Buddha never taught escape from responsibility or society; he taught escape from ignorance and evil thoughts and actions. After he was enlightened under the Bo tree, as the legend goes, he didn’t stay there: He got up and tirelessly taught others for the rest of his life.

Thich Nhat Hanh (center) leading a peace march
Thich Nhat Hanh (center) leading a peace march

GLENN: But teaching Buddhism isn’t the same thing as a “revolution,” necessarily. Buddhism tends to be regarded, in the United States, anyway, as a nice therapy, not a force for social change.

THURMAN: Well, you know, the Buddha was one of the few great religious leaders who was never persecuted or executed, because he knew the art of the possible, he was a very effective administrator and strategist. He was a prince, and in those days princes weren’t trained to be comparative literature professors, or poets; if he hadn’t gone over the wall, so to speak, he would have been a general. So he realized that he couldn’t just say, “We’re going to rule India according to the Buddhist ethic, and let’s give up our armies,” and so forth. He would have been crushed. Instead he founded the monastery, this very countercultural institution that exerted a slow and steady influence on many societies over the following centuries. And the sangha, the community, he founded was a sort of nation-within-a-nation in which the principles of individualism, nonviolence, personal evolutionism, simplicity, equal access to enlightenment, altruism, and pragmatism held sway. And if lots of people really started trying to live by these principles, we’d have a revolution on our hands.

Also, I want to point out that these ideals fit in very nicely with what we think of as “American” ideals of freedom, civility, pluralism, altruism, generosity, faith in human development, and individualism. We don’t need to call it a “Buddhist” movement, if that alienates people. The point of my book, which I’m writing all over again, by the way, is to say, look, given the fact that we live in an extremely free society, the idea that we can just sit on the sidelines and criticize everything “they” do is irresponsible, it’s unenlightened, and it’s un-Buddhist. There comes a time when you have to step in and take responsibility. We need to get up off our Zen pillows and mobilize active Buddhist participation in American politics. We need to speak out, we need to engage our opponents in dialogue, and we need to vote for the closest thing we can find to our principles. The Tibetan Buddhist movement in this country is only 15 or 20 years old, but I think it can become a very effective movement, and I think it’s very necessary right now.

GLENN: The “engaged Buddhism” of groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for instance, is very much an oppositional movement, one that practices protest and resistance, not one that seeks to actually step in and take over American society. And I hardly need to point out that Buddhism has historically tended to support the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it has found itself under.

THURMAN: You’re right. The engaged Buddhists who come from Japan, Vietnam, or China, for instance, have a background in their respective Buddhist traditions, where Buddhism was never anything more than a countercultural institution. So these “engaged Buddhists” are operating, ironically, under a dualistic presupposition that Buddhism can only be a restraining force on a fundamentally corrupt social order they can never really transform. They’re like the human rights activists who limit what they ask governments to do. They say, “Well, we’re just going to restrict ourselves to stopping torture. We’re not going to ask these governments to really allow self-determination, because it’s hopeless, they’ll never do it.” There is this very defeatist attitude that basically says it’s impossible to stop… well, Caesar. It fits in well with the Christian “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord what is the Lord’s,” you know, because you can never stop Caesar. Caesar is going to crucify you.

GLENN: I take it, then, that you get your inspiration for a “politics of enlightenment” from the history of Tibet. You have often described the preinvasion culture of Tibet glowingly as having been unique in all the world. How so?

THURMAN: As an institution Tibetan Buddhism has had the experience of administering a society along Buddhist lines, not just protesting or whatever. Tibet is the only Buddhist country in history where Buddhism ever became the mainstream culture. In Japan, China, India, or in Southeast Asia, for instance, Buddhism always coexisted with something like Confucianism, Brahmanism, or Shintoism — some sort of native culture that considered Buddhism impractical as far as fighting wars or running a bureaucracy are concerned. The rulers of those countries might very well have honored the monastery at times, but the final control, socially, rested with the king, with his military establishment and his aristocracy. Whereas in Tibet, after a thousand years of that same type of dualistic social structure, where Buddhism was a kind of countercultural restraining influence on the mainstream political entity, in 1642 the citizens of Tibet asked one of their leading monks, the fifth Dalai Lama, in fact, to be the king. Most of the national budget was then invested in the monasteries, which became the training ground for the government bureaucracy. Then, once the majority of single Tibetan males were in monasteries instead of in the military, the country demilitarized. And they developed an educational system connected with a massive monastic tradition that has no replica anywhere in the world. Their gross national product of enlightened persons must have been proportionally higher than any other country ever.

More than that, the Tibetans succeeded in transplanting that same cultural pattern into the Mongolian nations, which then became what I call “fully monasticized” and very demilitarized. This was kind of a miracle because the Tibetans and the Mongolians were two of the most ferocious, imperialistic, military nations in the world, and then, just as the rest of the world was gearing up to become imperialists, they turned into very peaceful monks. Both nations ended up being chewed up by the Russians and the Chinese precisely because they were demilitarized, but for three and a half centuries — right up until the Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1950 — the Tibetans were unique, and they continue to be potentially unique. If we can restore the Tibetan culture, they will show us a very meaningful society.

GLENN: Tibet was the inspiration for the mystical, utopian land of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Are you “Shangri-La-izing” Tibet? Is Tibet really such a worthwhile culture to emulate? It wasn’t a democracy, it was ruled for centuries by feudalistic noble families and then by theocratic monks, it had a low standard of living…


THURMAN: Tibet was never a “theocracy”; Buddhist monasteries are run on the rules established by the Buddha, and disobedience and critical thinking are encouraged in them. But to answer my critics who accuse me of trying to pretend that every Tibetan was an enlightened yogi, and they never even wiped their butts, and they didn’t have robbers and bandits and ignorant people, and they weren’t cruel ever — like it’s all just some sort of fantasy of mine, well, that isn’t at all the case. My thesis is a sociological one that has to do with mainstream social trends. The fact that a great majority of a country’s single males are monks rather than soldiers is a major social difference. Now, many of those monks might be nasty, they might punch people, some of them might pick your pockets, some of them might be ignorant. They might eat yak meat; they’re not out there petting the yaks. So I am in no way Shangri-La-izing Tibet when I try to develop a non-Orientalist way of appraising and appreciating certain social achievements of Tibet, which really tried to create a fully Buddhist society.

But my opponents, who want to adopt the old British attitude that Tibet was dirty, grubby, and backward; or the modernist attitude that it’s a “premodern” undeveloped society; or the attitude of many other Buddhist countries that think Tibet was somehow degenerate because it was very Tantric, and Tantric Buddhism grows out of the degenerate period in India, well… I think these attitudes are mired in the idea that we modern Americans are the most advanced civilization the world has ever seen. I don’t think that’s the case. I consider us pretty barbaric. We’re like the Mongolians before the Tibetans civilized them.

GLENN: You, Richard Gere and several others founded Tibet House New York — which is a cultural embassy of sorts, combining the functions of an educational institution, a museum, a conservation foundation, and a membership community — at the Dalai Lama’s request in 1987. You’ve said that one of the goals of Tibet House is “to make Tibetan culture familiar in every American household by the year 2000.” Is that one way of “civilizing” America?

THURMAN: I think so, but there are various levels on which it operates. We don’t have to convince everybody that Tibet is the unique, ultimate society of the world to try to save it. There are a lot of good-hearted people who’d like to save various Native American cultures and indigenous people all over the world, and if that’s how they have to consider Tibet to want to save it, that’s fine with me. It is my belief that Tibet can become a great school for mind training for people who would come there from all over the world to get “higher” education. Tibet could be a kind of Switzerland, where people would go not only for spas, but also for yogic training of a certain special kind. It would be a very effective institution, if they could develop it.

GLENN: The current situation in Tibet would seem to preclude any such development, don’t you think?

THURMAN: Ever since Mao’s armies invaded Tibet in 1950, the Chinese have engaged in what has been described as a wholesale campaign of genocide and “culturecide” against Tibet. As many as one-fifth of the preinvasion population of 6 million people were killed by famine, warfare, and execution. 130,000 Tibetans have fled into exile, and hundreds of thousands more have been interred in gulags and work camps. Tibetan cultural heritage has been carefully and systematically destroyed: Historic and religious sites and monuments have been razed; the Tibetan language was basically outlawed; much of Tibet’s voluminous philosophical, historical, and biographical literature was burned; and only 13 of over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries remain standing. Worse, China’s program of sinicization, an ongoing population transfer into Tibet, has resulted in seemingly irreparable damage to Tibetan culture.

Tibetan culture has survived the Chinese in two places. It has been reconstructed in exile, in the tiny seed community of about 6,000 Tibetans in Dharamsala, the Indian town where the Dalai Lama lives, which is the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. And it has survived in the hearts of most Tibetans, and in their language, in that even though all the buildings have been destroyed, and the monks, and the education of several generations, their own hearts are still untouched in their basic faith and orientation — they haven’t succumbed to Chinese materialism as a whole.

But I also fear we’re getting to a point now where we’re many generations away from the old education and the old culture, so the memory of that thriving world is endangered. Also, the Chinese are relocating so many people to Tibet and profoundly diluting the Tibetan population.

Tibetans in the US protest Beijing Olympics

GLENN: The Dalai Lama, as the exiled political leader of a very oppressed people, has taken a very peculiar position. He refuses to hate the Chinese. In fact, he has frequently said that we need to get rid of the notion of “enemy,” that we need to transform our enemy into someone toward whom we feel respect and gratitude.

THURMAN: It’s a very difficult notion, but the Dalai Lama is saying there that the only way to peace is peace, and that you cannot achieve peace through violence. He is following an age-old tradition that includes Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but he’s also staking out new territory by trying to do this in an international setting, whereas leaders like Gandhi and King were working within their own nations. Also, he is speaking for a tiny minority, 6 million Tibetans, against a vastly superior numerical opponent, which is the huge Chinese nation of 1.3 billion people. All he has on his side are the truth and his peacefulness.

The amazing and audacious and visionary thing that the Dalai Lama does, and how he got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, is his insistence that he is going to see a free Tibet in his lifetime by nonviolent means, and that everyone should solve problems by nonviolent means. The Kissingers of this world, and the Deng Xiaopings, laugh at him and despise him. But I have great faith in him, and I believe that what he is saying will come to pass. He was really ecstatic in 1989 when the Czechoslovakian revolution against the Russians was relatively peaceful. Hungary, the Baltic states, and all of that unraveling of the Russian empire proved that this sort of thing can happen relatively peacefully, and that it is more effective if it is peaceful than if it is a violent, bloody revolution.

The Dalai Lama always says, “Let’s not talk about Buddhism, let’s talk about the common human religion of kindness.” You cannot make peace with the neighbor by hating the neighbor. The Dalai Lama gets this fundamental teaching from Shantideva, the great Mahayana teacher, who wrote the Bodhicharyavatara, the guide to the bodhisattva way of life, which is the whole yoga of developing tolerance by learning not to hate the enemy — by, in fact, learning to identify the true enemy, which is hatred. Hatred is far worse than any ordinary enemy. Ordinary enemies harm us, but the harm they do is not just in order to make us unhappy; it is also meant to be of some help to themselves. But hatred itself has no other function but to destroy our positive actions and make us unhappy. So therefore hatred is the thing you mustn’t give in to, and hatred is the only thing that you can hate.


GLENN: I’d like to ask you a question about your profession. Translation’s reputation as a form of literature is low, to say the least. It is too often perceived as merely a mechanical activity, in which one simply finds words from one language that correspond to words from another. But you have been known to say that the hermeneutic — or interpretive — enterprise is the very essence of the Buddhist path, and that the problems of hermeneutics are the problems of life itself. How so?

THURMAN: Well, everything is a matter of perspective and interpretation, right? And so how you interpret things has everything to do with the inner quality of your response to things. Within that, I think that translation is a wonderful exercise in seeing the multiple ways reality can be expressed and analyzed. Different languages carve up reality in different ways. There is an ancient Buddhist symbol of a translator that is a two-headed duck — not a duck, exactly, but more like a cuckoo or something. It has two heads, meaning that it looks into two different cultures and makes a bridge between them. Now, in modern times, translation is not respected. Modern cultures are fairly arrogant and ethnocentric, and think of themselves as higher than anything from the past, or any other existing “premodern” culture. So we naturally think that in translating something, we’re bringing something from some lower realm into our realm just out of curiosity. Since we’re the highest culture, anything we would translate into English would just be for our curiosity. But in the ancient period, and particularly in Tibet, where they had the idea that Buddhist knowledge, which they learned from India, was something of a higher nature, and that to learn about it could elevate a human being, translators were respected, because they had to look into the realm of that higher knowledge and bring it into the lower cultural realm of the target language. In our Dharma communities, though, a translator is a little more honored, because we have the idea that Western philosophy didn’t get it together quite as well as the Buddhist philosophers did.

GLENN: In the introductory chapter to your recent translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you write that death is “a strong force close to life, a powerful impulse to the good, an intensifier of positive attitudes and actions.” What do you mean by that?

THURMAN: On a very human level, Tibetan culture shares our Western attitude towards death, that it is a frightening and tragic end of life. On a more spiritual level, however, Tibetans have learned that death forces everyone to let go of everything: You let go of your mind, your personality, and your sense of control over reality. And that is what Buddhism teaches, that nothing we think we are, do, feel, or have has any stability. This state of letting go can also happen in moments of great pleasure, like in orgasm, or sometimes when you make a great gift or a great self-overcoming. Heroic acts are done when people let go of their normal self-guarding attitudes; at the moment of death, then, everyone comes into some sort of heroic state. If you try to be aware that life is fundamentally let-go-able, even when you’re not actually facing death, then you can begin to live in a more ‘letting-go’ way. You can become more sensitive in your interactions, more free, and more open. Being aware of death, even rehearsing death in meditation can make your life more rich. The art of dying is as important as the art of living.




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What do you think?

  1. “Different languages carve up reality in different ways” – yes! And then scale up into action. So it becomes less “what is reality” than “what’s the best way to choose to live?” and “how can we create that?” I’m not as big a fan of historical Tibet as some, although I certainly don’t support China’s vicious colonialist impulses. But that there can be a society, or a group, that demonstrates DIY philosophy as living practice, is certainly valid, and worth fomenting and encouraging, even if only realized imperfectly.

    Thurman’s sociology of celebrities is also enlightening: that their position gives them a privileged (pun intended) view on the emptiness of success. Any particular celebrity might not be the brightest star in the sky, but even a faint glimmer reveals when the glass is 100% empty. At least by the point where one is trying to drink from it! Perhaps it is middlebrow to think of celebrities as looking for an easy pacifier, simply qua celebrities?

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