The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana

An Interview with Robert Thurman

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Robert A.F. Thurman, who was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1964 by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, where he chairs the Department of Religion. One of the world's most respected scholars and translators of Tibetan and Sanskrit for a Western audience, Thurman has translated The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture (1976) and The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1994) and is the author of The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey Tsong Khapa's Essence of True Eloquence (1984), Speech of Gold: Reason and Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism (1989), Inside Tibetan Buddhism (1995), and The Politics of Enlightenment: A Handbook for Cool Revolution (forthcoming). In 1973 Thurman co-founded the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, in order to translate the Tibetan Tengyur, a collection of over five thousand ancient works of philosophy, psychology, and other sciences, into English. He also co-founded, in 1987, Tibet House New York, a nonprofit organization of which he is currently president. Associate editor Joshua Glenn spoke with Thurman about Buddhism, translation, and the politics of enlightenment.

UR: 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.

UR: 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.

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