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Lions Roar : September 2018
“His undergraduate classes are packed,” Awn says. “He’s a dazzling lecturer. “When he was first hired, we had people walking around looking for Uma sightings,” Awn remembers. But to Robert’s credit, he’s respected for far more than his glittery connections. “As a snobby academic,” says Awn, “let me say that what’s really impres- sive is the quality of graduate students he’s trained over the years. He is, philosophic- ally, incredibly sophisticated.” Robert’s unique backstory has allowed him to be effective as a mainstream Bud- dhist voice and an impassioned advocate for Tibetans suffering under Chinese rule. But he can also make an intellectual argu- ment for past and future lives, translate the Vimalakirti Sutra into English, give the Dalai Lama a good-natured ribbing, and call in a favor from George Lucas. Robert’s warm relationship with the Dalai Lama has driven much of his career. It began in the 1960s when Robert’s first guru, New Jersey–based Mongolian lama Geshe Wangyal, introduced them. Versed in the Tibetan language and holding degrees from Harvard, Robert traveled to India to teach English and learn from the Dalai Lama. Geshe Wangyal warned that he believed Robert would never be a life- long monk, but the Dalai Lama ordained Robert anyway. “He made me a monk, I think, to keep me there,” Robert says. The relationship was reciprocal: Robert received dharma guidance, and in return offered his own academic knowledge. “Our weekly meetings turned into every three days, to the annoyance of the Dalai Lama’s staff,” Robert remembers. “He downloaded everything from me—my Exeter, Harvard smattering of education. I would make up these Tibetan words for scientific concepts. Back and forth.” When Robert returned to the States to get his PhD from Har- vard, he impulsively named his area of studies “Buddhology” on his thesis form, deciding it was a more inclusive term than “Bud- dhist studies.” He wasn’t studying Buddhists from afar, as if they were part of a separate and alien culture; he was an expert in Bud- dhism from within. This would distinguish him among religious studies scholars of his time. Robert’s resolve grew out of an academic culture resistant to his unique combination of traits: a white American studying and subscribing to Buddhism as a spiritual path. “People wrote letters against me getting jobs in the religious studies community because they thought I should be a Christian,” he says. “You could be a Buddhist if you happened, poor thing, to be born outside of Jesus’s reach in Japan or China. But that you would look like me and have become a heathen, it was apostasy.” Because of this attitude, Robert also felt pressure within academia to be critical of Buddhism in order to prove his neutrality. Basic misunderstandings of Buddhism flourished. When he started teaching at Amherst College in 1973, he presented a new course he called “Buddhist Ethics” to be included in the course catalog. Fellow faculty members challenged him: “How can you teach Buddhist ethics? For ethics, you have to have a self, and Buddhists don’t have one. They might do good things now and again by accident, but they’re not restraining this terrible self, so they don’t have any ethical system.” Robert’s star power as an ambassador of Tibetan Buddhism in America began to grow in the late 1980s. He and Nena cofounded Tibet House with Richard Gere and composer Philip Glass in 1986 and he accepted his position at Columbia in 1988. In 1997, Time named Robert one of the twenty-five most influential Americans, calling him “the Billy Graham of American Buddhism.” The magazine cited the “glitziness” of his ambassador- ship, but it should be known that he’s Thurman is the Dalai Lama’s closest Western advisor and the leading voice of the Tibetan cause in America. The two friends have made a joking pact to live until the year 2048 in hopes of seeing the Tibetan cause prevail. Menla Mountain Retreat—“ Tibet in the Catskills”— features a conference center, yoga studio, meditation sanctuary, and healing center specializing in Tibetan medicine. PHOTO:©AP/THECANADIANPRESS/JULIOCORTEZ Ordained by the Dalai Lama, Thurman was the first Westerner to become a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He returned to lay life because he felt he “could be more effective in the American equivalent of the monastery: the university.” LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 33