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Lions Roar : September 2018
surprising as the next. It’s this charisma that has made him one of America’s most famous Buddhists and a rock star of a reli- gious studies professor at Columbia Uni- versity, where he has taught Indo-Tibetan studies for thirty years. The seventy-six-year-old, whose many books include Why the Dalai Lama Mat- ters and a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is retiring from that storied career next year. But it’s hard to imagine him or Nena—as much his professional and spiritual partner as his wife—slow- ing down. They’ll still have Tibet House, their cultural center in New York City, and Menla, their Tibet-inspired spa and retreat tain that, which is less visible than people building these dharma empires facilitated by lobotomizing people’s thinking pro- cess, if you want to put it in a negative, critical manner. You do it for years and then you think, ‘Gee whiz, the buzz I got from shutting down my thinking process was not enlightenment.’” Robert certainly doesn’t mince words. But it follows that a professor would pas- sionately emphasize the dissemination of knowledge, and his contribution to spreading knowledge of the dharma goes beyond established Buddhist practition- ers: his popular courses at Columbia have introduced Buddhist philosophy to thou- sands of students who might never have known about it otherwise. In the classroom, Robert has main- tained an understandably stricter emphasis on learning rather than Bud- dhist practice. “In academics you can’t proselytize,” he says. “I never sent a single student to a Buddhist center. I was asked many times to suggest a center, but I always replied that I would only give you a rule of thumb, which is you should rely on teachers who are very open to your study. Teachers who don’t just say, ‘This is it, one-stop-shopping. You have karma with me, so don’t go anywhere else.’” To his colleague Peter Awn, a professor of Islamic studies and chair of Colum- bia’s department of religion when Thur- man was hired, Robert’s combination of intellect and devotion to Buddhism has been the key to his profound impact on students. “That’s not an easy line to walk—the ability to present oneself as rigorously academic, critical as well as positive, but also maintain and have a very public engagement with your own personal commitment,” Awn says. “He has really brought Indo-Tibetan Bud- dhism to a level of awareness and intel- lectual engagement among Americans that did not exist before him.” Robert’s charisma adds to his appeal as a professor, as do his Hollywood con- nections—one of his four children with Nena is the actress Uma Thurman, and he cofounded Tibet House with Richard Gere. The Dalai Lama visits Tibet House U.S ., which was founded at his request to help preserve Tibetan culture. Left to right: Philip Glass, Robert Thurman, Elizabeth Avedon, Elsie Walker, and Richard Gere. facility in the Catskills, to keep them busy. The Thurmans’ abundant energy is apparent even as they do their version of relaxing. In their mountain home, on this sunny spring day, they enjoy goat cheese, rice crackers, and dandelion tea, while they trade reminders about life’s mun- danities—picking up the car from the shop, the kids coming to visit—and Rob- ert holds forth. About the future of Bud- dhism in America: we need more dharma knowledge, belief in past and future lives, and a stronger monastic tradition. About the Tibetan cause: he’s optimistic. And about secular mindfulness meditation centers: he’s cool with them. ROBERT THURMAN cuts a striking figure with his swath of thick, silver hair perched above his wire-rimmed glasses and blue eyes, the left one a prosthetic replacing the eye he lost in a 1961 acci- dent involving a racecar and a car jack. He’s clear about what his main contribu- tion to Buddhist thought over the past five decades has been: “It’s that medi- tation will not solve the problem if you don’t learn something.” In American Buddhism, he says, “the main thing has been to just meditate and it will all be solved. That is a bunch of b.s., as far as I’m concerned. Meditation is essential, but only after learning some- thing. My contribution has been to main- Famed model Nena von Schlebrügge and former monk Robert Thurman on their wedding day in 1967. PHOTOBYSONAMZOKSANG LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 32