The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana

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
(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.

UR: 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.

UR: 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?


UR: 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.

UR: 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.

UR: I’d like to get back to the subject of 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 forthcoming book
The Politics of Enlightenment: A Handbook for Cool
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

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.

UR: 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

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

UR: But 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

UR: 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.

UR: 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.

UR: 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.

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

THURMAN: 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

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.

UR: 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

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.

You can contact Robert Thurman c/o Tibet
House, 241 E. 32nd St., New York, NY 10016; 212/213-5592.

Subscription information for the Tibet House Drum, the
bi-annual newsletter of Tibet House New York, is available from the
same address.

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