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Lions Roar : September 2018
Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and stay there like previous Dalai Lamas. “He will of course return when he can, but he’s not just going to stay shut up in Tibet,” Robert says. “He’s serving the world now. I’m sure his successors will be the same.” As for the future of Buddhism in Amer- ica, Robert has some more surprising thoughts. He thinks the trend toward bou- tique meditation centers with no spiritual tradition attached is just fine, despite his admonitions that Buddhist meditators should have knowledge to back up their practice. “Mindfulness meditation centers are not trying to enlist people in a cult,” he says. “They’re just trying to give them a little more awareness. It’s like yoga stu- dios, where people go to meet girls or be athletic, and then they might also go into some of the higher aspects of yoga. I don’t like the purists and their snotty attack, saying, ‘It’s not the real thing.’” Robert’s most radical idea is his vision for Tibetan Buddhism in the West going forward. For it to truly flourish, he insists that two things must happen: an embrace of rebirth and a strong, celibate, monastic institution. For starters, Robert says, “The idea of former and future life is essential to the real practice of Buddhism. You have to be scared of where you are going in the next life to have the energy to overcome your deeper instincts. I call it the circuit breaker. Everything is interconnected. If you’re endlessly interconnected, then every little thing counts. If you only get pissed off for one minute and fifty-eight seconds instead of two minutes, those two seconds are big. That’s scary, but it brings you awake.” And despite having given up his own monasticism for marriage, Robert believes that Tibetan Buddhism needs celibate monastics to grow in the modern West. He once believed that American Buddhism could survive on lay practi- tioners, but he changed his mind when he studied the U.S. peace movement of the sixties and seventies. “Seymour Melman gave a speech on the first Earth Day about the nuclear freeze movement,” Robert says. “He said, these marches are great, but you guys have day jobs and you do this in your spare time. The war industry has professional, lifelong careers and zillions of dollars in those careers. How are you really going to match that in the longer term?” Robert sees an obvious parallel in monasticism: Buddhism must have a strong institu- tional presence, with career practitioners, to root itself in America and counteract the prevailing destructive culture. It’s clear that impending retirement has only inflamed Robert’s passion for ideas even more. Looking back, he’s pleased with his choice of academics as his pri- mary way of teaching Buddhism. “I’m so glad that I became a professor rather than a dharma center person,” Robert says, “because it gave me a day job, and I didn’t have to try to have an empire.” That is, as long as you don’t consider Tibet House, Menla, years of fruitful activism, and thousands of students edu- cated in Buddhism an empire. Let’s call it a karmic kingdom of Buddhology that’s not going anywhere, retirement or not. ♦ JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG’S new book is Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. Robert Thurman is the author of many scholarly and popular books on Buddhism, Tibet, art, politics, and culture, including Why the Dalai Lama Matters, The Central Philosophy of Tibet, and Love Your Enemies (co-authored with Sharon Salzberg). LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2018 35