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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Journey of a Buddhaholic

June 8, 2008

Joyce Morgan
The Sydney Morning Herald
June 7, 2008

ROBERT THURMAN was changing a flat tyre on his car when the tyre
lever slipped. It destroyed his left eye but transformed his life. It
prompted the then-20-year-old to drop out of Harvard and head east on
a remarkable journey that has led him to become a monk, America's
leading Buddhist scholar and one of the country's most influential
thinkers - oh, yes, and father of actress Uma Thurman.

"That [accident] helped me a lot," Professor Thurman says. "My first
lama [teacher] told me that whenever I discuss it, I should always
say, 'I lost one eye and gained a thousand."'

He certainly gained a different way of looking at the world when he
swapped car wheels for Tibetan prayer wheels. It's a journey that
continues to take unpredictable turns. For although Thurman is a
prolific author and translator of Buddhist texts, he has not before
ventured into political writing.

His new book Why The Dalai Lama Matters is ambitious in scope and
controversial in the solution he offers to the Tibet-China impasse.
For Thurman argues that the current Dalai Lama is potentially China's
best asset and details a strategy that would even see the Dalai Lama
nominate the Chinese premier for a Nobel Peace Prize.

It's also a straight-talking, wide-ranging book that refers to a
former Dalai Lama as a "legendary party-goer", tells how the late
actor-writer Spalding Gray once asked the current incarnation (who
arrives in Australia next week) if he ever had erotic dreams and
roundly criticises the US for entering a disastrous war under false pretences.

Thurman has ventured into political terrain now to inject a vision
that a non-violent solution is possible.

"In the last two years I've been really getting tired of the fact
that in the Tibetan movement and outside - even those people who go
'Free Tibet' very adamantly - when you ask them, 'Do you think it
will be free?' they go 'Oh, no, never. Oh, impossible."'

That's not the way Thurman sees it. Not when the Soviet Union has
crumbled and South Africa's apartheid regime has fallen without a
violent revolution. This is why, when one critic described Thurman's
book as commonsensical but wildly improbable, he took it in his stride.

"In 1987, if someone said, 'Oh, yeah Russia's going to leave East
Germany. Sure, they're going home instead of keeping the Red Army
there,' everyone would have said you were crazy. Wildly improbable.
So I consider 'wildly improbable' a compliment," he says.

Thurman is as straight-talking and expansive as his book. His
conversation travels at lightning pace through international
politics, mind-bending metaphysics and Quentin Tarantino's movies -
at times in the same sentence. And although he's a fast talker,
paradoxically he appears to have all the time in the world. After
nearly an hour on the phone from New York, the witty, candid scholar
- who Time magazine once named one of the 25 most influential
Americans - shows no sign of flagging.

Thurman, who is Je Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist
studies at Columbia University, has been one of the Dalai Lama's
closest confidants since they met in India when both were in their
20s. Thurman, fluent in Tibetan, was among the first Westerners the
Dalai Lama, then newly living in exile, had met. So what were those
early conversations about?

"I would come in all fired up to study Buddhism and he'd say 'Let's
talk about Freud, psychology, nuclear physics, the American
congressional system,"' he says. "It was things in the West he wanted
to know about."

Thurman was the first American to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk when
the Dalai Lama ordained him in 1965. But after two years with a
shaved head and in maroon robes, Thurman realised a monk's life was
not for him. He returned to Harvard, where he obtained his PhD in
Sanskrit-Indian studies. He married Nena von Schlebrugge, a model
turned psychotherapist who had briefly been married to '60s LSD guru
Timothy Leary.

During his formative studies in India, Thurman was assigned to the
Dalai Lama's senior tutor, Ling Rinpoche. The highly revered lama,
who died in 1983, was briefly "grumpy" when the American resigned his
monkhood. "In Tibetan culture it's considered such a privilege to be
a monk that … it would be unusual to offer back your robes," Thurman says.

When I mention that in Dharamsala 20 years ago I met a young boy who
Tibetans consider the reincarnation of his old tutor, Thurman relates
a strange story. Thurman had arrived unannounced about the same time
to meet the same boy. The pair were chatting and playing together,
when the boy he was carrying on his shoulders suddenly became cross with him.

"The little boy manifested that grumpiness and started scolding me:
'You were a nice monk, sitting there with the monks and you just
jumped up and ran off' … It was like the personality of [Ling
Rinpoche] came through for a few seconds," Thurman says.

"I was so shocked; I was amazed."

Perhaps almost as amazed as Thurman's parents when they learned their
son had become a Buddhist monk. Thurman grew up in a bohemian,
well-connected household. His mother was an actress, his father an
Associated Press editor. Laurence Olivier and Augustin Duncan, the
dancer Isadora's blind brother, were among the visitors to the
family's Upper East Side apartment. Thurman continues to engage with
a broad network.

He mentions in passing that he met Henry Kissinger at a function the
previous day. This comes as a surprise, given that Thurman has long
been critical of the Nixon-era secretary of state's close relations
with China. But the encounter was cordial and Kissinger had expressed
an interest in finding a positive solution to the China-Tibet impasse.

Certainly, time is running out to do so. For Thurman argues that the
death of the current Dalai Lama will not be the end of China's
problems with Tibet. Quite the contrary. Indeed, this Dalai Lama, who
China has so demonised, offers the best hope for a solution because
of the loyalty he commands among his people.

"The Dalai Lama inspires them to it [non-violence] because they love
him so much even if [some] grumble that … maybe he needs a gun or
something," says Thurman.

Non-violence is at the heart of the Dalai Lama's teaching and Tibetan
culture, which is why Thurman believes the world has much to learn
from both as we teeter on the precipice of environmental and military
destruction. "Tibet was just as warlike as anybody else in their
day," he says. "The Tibetan experiment is the experiment of
demilitarising a nation and making non-violence a core principle of
life. Even though it's imperfect - I never did say it was Shangri-la."

But it is an example nonetheless that it is possible to do it.

"I have a slogan - unfortunately falling on deaf ears in America -
that we have to shift from MAD to MUD, from mutually assured
destruction to mutual unilateral disarmament. Everybody has to take a
risk and disarm, it has to be mutual. It's like two poker players
putting their guns down on the table at the same time, watching the other one."

Given Thurman's emphasis on non-violence, what does he think of Pulp
Fiction and Kill Bill, the splatterfest Quentin Tarantino movies that
helped propel his daughter's movie career? He admits he was concerned
initially but draws a parallel between the violent roles that his
daughter has played and the fierce, female deities of Hindu and
Tibetan iconography.

"They're extremely popular among younger women worldwide. The idea
that they can take care of themselves, they don't need to be pushed
around. In that light I kind of reconciled myself to it, although we
were upset at first," he says. "You can't be namby-pamby all the time."

He's proud of his daughter - as he is of his other three children,
who each have Tibetan names. One is a yoga teacher, another an
environmentalist and a third works for Tibet House, the New York
centre he founded with composer Philip Glass and actor Richard Gere
to preserve Tibetan culture.

A 66, he is an admitted workaholic: "Buddhaholism, my wife calls it."
He still has much to do - including, he hopes, visiting Australia.
But more than 40 years after embarking on a quest for spiritual
insight, he says his journey is still before him.

"I'm still unenlightened - as my wife and children will be quick to
tell you. But one lifetime or another, I will be enlightened," he
says, with utter confidence. "No doubt about it."

Why the Dalai Lama Matters is published by Simon & Schuster, $29.95.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will deliver five days of teachings
at the Dome, Sydney Showground at Sydney Olympic Park, June 11-15.
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