Robert Thurman talks to John Malkin about the politics of enlightenment, pointing to social change without violence, the importance of imaginative dialogue between Catholics and Buddhists, and the futility of military chauvinism.
John Malkin: I have heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama say that while the West has been exploring outer space and material science, the Tibetans have been exploring inner space and developing an inner science. Tell me more about Tibet’s laboratory of inner science and about your first encounter with the inner revolution in Tibet.
Robert Thurman: My first encounter with it was purely philosophical. I was not seeking religion because I was defining religion the way we do now in the West, as a matter of faith. I was not interested in faith because it was presented as something irrational. I felt that if people believe things without good reason, then they might luck out and it may be a good thing that they believe, but then they were also in danger of being trapped, seduced or confused into believing bad things. They would have no reason in either case. Unfortunately, the authoritarian personality that underlies the fascist movements that caused so much trouble in the last century arose in people who had a mindset of believing things without a good reason.
In Tibet, I encountered a philosophy which is an inner science about how to understand yourself and how to understand the world. It was based in using your critical faculty and your doubt and meditating on that and developing better, stronger concentration to doubt with and to reason with.
I define Buddhism nowadays as “Engaged Realism.” Buddhism enables one to pull aside the blinds and delusions and traditional myths and see reality as it is and see the reality of one’s self as it is. And the more realistic one becomes about reality, the more one realizes that one has the energy and one has the situation of being happy. Even death does not disturb one’s happiness in that case, because one has a continuing energy of love and bliss, compassion and wisdom, in whatever body.
Tibet was very backwards and very violent until about thirteen hundred years ago. It was a violent, conquest-oriented place, actually. They had big dynasties and empires and harassed their neighbors and looted and pillaged and behaved just like we do now. This movement of inner revolution and nonviolence sprang up most powerfully in India, which is where the Buddha chose to be reborn in this cycle of history. It was a society that centralized enlightenment and made that the highest aim…
Robert A. F. Thurman is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University School of Religion, author, director of Tibet House in New York City, a close personal friend of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and father of five children including the actress, Uma Thurman.
John Malkin is a journalist, musician, and social change activist. His book of interviews with musicians on spirituality and social change, Sounds of Freedom, was published in 2005 by the independent Buddhist publisher Parallax Press.