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Lions Roar : September 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006 62 sense,” he says. “I’m not trying to get anyone to join anything”) and Time magazine in 1997 pronounced him one of the twenty- five most influential people in the U.S., another label he scoffs at. Thurman shepherds his close friend the Dalai Lama around the United States whenever he visits. He lives in a world of celeb- rity dazzle as a pal of fellow Buddhists or Tibet supporters like Gere, Harrison Ford, Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, rock star Michael Stipe, singer Natalie Merchant. The Tibetan medicine institute—a spa, training school, and revenue operation for Tibetan exiles—has been his dream for the past fifteen years. The dream took a big step forward five years ago when an organization with a spectacular 320-acre property in the Catskill Mountains, complete with conference facilities and accommodation for sixty visitors, threw in the towel on its efforts to create a healing center based on Greek mysticism and donated the estate to Tibet House. Above all, what engages Thurman and draws public and me- dia attention to him (apart from his Hollywood hobnobbing and romantic life story) is his position at the epicenter of America’s Buddhist Third Wave: first wave, the nineteenth-century tran- scendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller weaving their metaphysics out of Buddhism and Hinduism; second, the 1960s counterculture trek to Himalayan gurus; and now, third, the growing appeal of Buddhism to Americans alienated from the- istic religions and in search of a moral and ethical compass, the fertile society for Bob Thurman’s hoped-for Cool Revolution. THURMAN IS THE THIRD WAVE’S chief messenger, an artic- ulate, accessible bridge between Tibetan Buddhist teachings and American culture, the first Westerner to be ordained a Buddhist monk (by the Dalai Lama himself in 1965), a brainy and charis- matic speaker, a colorful, totally engaging, funny Buddanarchist with the devastating verbal skills to draw beads in a single sen- tence on the Bush administration, Christian fundamentalism, and Americans’ mythological delusions and dogma of materialism. He offers Buddhism not as a religion—“The Dalai Lama and I agree, or really I agree with him, that in the modern period it’s too late to go around peddling a religion”—but as a service. Not as a church but a school, what Thurman calls “Buddhism with- out Buddhism,” to the annoyance of more earnest adherents (“I made official Buddhists a little jumpy,” he says). “The biggest finding of the Buddha,” he says, “is not a reli- gious ‘Eureka! I met God and he told me to make you believe in something.’ The biggest finding of the Buddha is that human hair, coming noisily through the door of the stately, four-bed- room apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He thumps luggage on the floor from a weekend spent hiking in the Catskills and giving dharma lectures related to his latest project, a Tibetan medical center at a mountain retreat in upstate New York—“my last sort of great excitement,” the sixty-five-year-old Tibetan Buddhist scholar says. His wife, Nena, is calling to him from an inner room to check beets boiling on the kitchen stove. Thurman is answering her in his booming voice. Liberated from the confinement of the Catskills car-trip, the Thurmans’ three Lhasa apsos—true Tibetan temple terriers, says Thurman, not the more common North American apso-shitzu hybrid—are dashing about frenetically. The apart- ment is a jumble of Buddhist shrines and artwork, with books and newspapers stacked on every surface, including the floor. The living room is dominated by two huge, black leather couches facing each other across a coffee table. The thought sneaks unbidden into a visitor’s mind: Uma Thurman has sat here on these couches, in her parents’ home. Bob Thurman, amidst all this action, is talking intensely about his future. He is retiring from Columbia University, where he has been chair of the department of religion and Jey Tsong Khapa Profes- sor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, America’s first endowed university chair for the study of Buddhism. He has added a sec- ond endowed professorship in Tibetan studies to the department (he’d hoped for two, but a downturn in the stock market blew the money away), and he is determined to create a Tibetan insti- tute at the university before he severs his Columbia connection. He plans, he says, never to stop teaching. He and his wife, a psychotherapist, will continue doing volun- teer work at New York City’s Tibet House, the informal cultural and political embassy of the Tibetan government-in-exile that he and actor Richard Gere founded in 1987. His son Ganden, 38, the eldest of his four children, is its executive director. Thurman has written more than a dozen books on Tibet and its Buddhist tradition. He has testified before U.S. government bodies on China’s half-century occupation of Tibet. He lectures tirelessly. He has been dubbed Buddhism’s Billy Graham (“Non- MICHAEL VALPY writes for The Globe and Mail in Toronto and is a senior resident at University of Toronto’s Massey College. His primary in- terest as a journalist lies in the intersection of spirituality and social and political values. Thurman is the chief messenger of Buddhism’s Third Wave: the growing appeal of Buddhism to Americans alienated from theistic religions and in search of a moral and ethical compass.