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Lions Roar : September 2006
studies at the College of William and Mary to follow Elizabeth to New York, and wound up working as an editor for the As- sociated Press. Augustin Duncan, the dancer Isadora’s brother, conducted weekly dramatic readings in the Thurmans’ home, where Robert and his brothers read parts alongside guests like Laurence Olivier. But Thurman also sneaked comic books inside his Shakespeare folio. He was enrolled in the exclusive New England preparatory school, Phillips Exeter Academy, where he was co-captain of the lacrosse team and a National Merit scholar, and was admitted to Harvard. “Everything was predetermined,” he says. Although not everything. Thurman and a wealthy Mexican schoolmate played hooky to go join Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrilla army in the spring of 1958. The boys never got beyond Miami Beach—and they were both kicked out of Exeter just before graduation. Nevertheless, with top grades and SAT scores, Thurman was allowed to enroll in Harvard where, in his first term, he fell in love with Christophe de Menil, heiress to a considerable French fortune and art collection, and married her in 1960 at the age of eighteen. The couple almost immedi- ately had a daughter, Taya. Then, in the spring of 1961, while hewasfixingaflatonhiscarathis family’s Connecticut home, the tire iron slipped and destroyed his left eye. It brought him face to face with mor- tality and an awareness that life was not something to be dabbled with. In Thurman’s words, he realized he did not want to waste his life “drinking champagne and staring at Rouaults.” He told The New York Times a few years ago that, having read Nietzsche and Buddhist texts, he made a young man’s vow to act on his highest aims. “I was ready to go to the East,” he said, but “my wife was nervous, scared of the whole thing. I then started iden- tifying with Buddha, left my wife and child and went over there. I was very sad about that, but I felt— even as a father—what’s the use of not being enlightened?” He wandered for months through Turkey and Iran, heading toward India, dressed in Afghan pants and sandals and letting his hair and beard grow, until he was called home because of his fa- ther’s unexpected death. He visited a Buddhist monastery in New Jersey and met his first teacher, a sixty-one-year-old Mongolian monk, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. Thurman described studying with the monk as a “rebirth.” He quickly learned Tibetan. He meditated, helped his mentor build a temple, and declared that he wanted to become a monk and live this life forever. Geshe Wangyal advised against it but agreed to take Thurman with him to Dharamsala, India, headquarters of the Dalai Lama 64 SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2006