For a transcript of this interview, see below
The importance of ethics, morality, and discipline on the path, and the role of Right View.
Join Andrew in this interview with Robert Thurman on a wide-ranging discussion, starting with a “state of the union” address about the status of Buddhism in the West, and the place of Tibetan or Tantric Buddhism.
Are we ready for these subtle spiritual technologies – which include dream yoga and bardo yoga? Are the recent scandals an indication that we are not? The conversation turns to the “neuromania” sweeping over Buddhism and science, and the danger of reductionism in both disciplines. Dr. Thurman then talks about the importance of ethics, morality, and discipline on the path, and the role of Right View.
The discussion transitions into viewing dream yoga as a form of psychotherapy, the importance of making unconscious processes conscious, and how dream yoga could be the next step after the mindfulness revolution. Robert then talks about Menla Sleep Yoga and its restorative power, and finally about bardo yoga, with a look at the perennial question: “What is it that reincarnates?” Because of Professor Thurman’s unique stature and longevity, this discussion flows freely between politics, sex, power, science, death, meditation, Tibet, lucid dreaming and a host of other provocative topics.
This interview with Robert Thurman is a rare opportunity to tap into the wisdom of a gifted scholar and practitioner, someone who has devoted his life to the translation and transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West.
More about Robert
Robert Thurman holds a Phd from Harvard University and is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Dr. Thurman is also President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a non-profit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and dedicated to the publication of translations of important artistic and scientific treatises. Time Magazine chose Professor Thurman as one of its 25 most influential Americans in 1997, and The New York Times said Thurman “is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” After learning Tibetan and studying Buddhism he became a Tibetan Buddhist monk and was the first Westerner to be ordained by the Dalai Lama. He is the author of many books on Tibet, Buddhism, art, politics and culture.
As part of his long-term commitment to the Tibetan cause, at the request of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Thurman co-founded Tibet House US in 1987 with Richard Gere and Philip Glass, which is a non profit organization dedicated to the preservation and renaissance of Tibetan civilization. Tibet House recently founded the Menla Retreat + Dewa Spa in the Catskill Mountains to advance the healing arts and wisdom of Tibetan and Asian medicine.
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Welcome, everybody, Andrew Holecek here. I have a really special guest with us today, Professor Robert Thurman, who I just simply can’t wait to discuss what I think are really compelling topics. But let me start as I always do by introducing Dr. Thurman with a bio and then we’ll just jump right in.
Robert Thurman holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and is a Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies from the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
I’m an emeritus now.
Oh, emeritus. Thanks for the correction. Dr. Robert Thurman is also President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a non-profit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and dedicated to the publication of translations of important artistic and scientific treatises.
“Time Magazine” chose Professor Robert Thurman as one of its “25 Most Influential Americans” in 1997. And “The New York Times” said, Thurman is, “considered the leading expert on Tibetan Buddhism…the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” After learning Tibetan and studying Buddhism, he became a Tibetan Buddhist monk and was the first Westerner to be ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He is the author of many books on Tibet, Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, art, politics, and culture. As part of his longterm commitment to the Tibetan cause, at the request of the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman co-founded Tibet House US in 1987 with Richard Gere and Philip Glass, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and renaissance of Tibetan civilization. Tibet House recently founded the Menla Retreat Center and Dewa Spa in the Catskill Mountains to advance the healing arts and wisdom of Tibetan and Asian medicine.
Bob, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us, and there are so many things I want to talk about. I do want to mention just briefly to our audience that one of the reasons Bob is so graciously taking the time to speak with us is that I am presenting a week-long program at his center in upstate New York, Menla, at the end of May.
Dr. Thurman has very graciously agreed to give the keynote opening address and join us for part of this event which I’m extraordinarily excited about, because he’s a leading voice, not only in the world of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but also one of the translators of the legendary “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” So, before we turn to those topics, Bob, with your kind permission…
I want to start with just some general comments from you because of your stature and your longevity in this field, you are absolutely truly a pioneer in the literal and cultural translation, and transplantation of Tibetan Buddhism in America. Speak to us for just a second, if you would about the state of the union of Buddhism in the West, and in particular, Tibetan Buddhism. How do things look from your perspective? What can we be concerned about and what can we be optimistic about just in terms of the state of the union of Buddhism in America altogether? So, let’s start with that.
Okay, great. Sure. Well, when “Time Magazine” did a thing about Buddhism comes to America two years ago, they called me the Jeremiah of the American Buddhas because I was not into this thing. There was a picture on the cover of Brad Pitt wearing a Tibetan jacket in his Heinrich Harrer role for that movie in the ’90s.
“Seven Years in Tibet.”
“Seven Years in Tibet.” So, they were saying, “Buddhism sweeps into America,” all this kind of thing. And then, I was saying, “No way, it’s still very remote, actually, from America. It’s beginning to make an impact and beginning to be of service.” I said, “But you can’t say that it is really a big thing here in America now other than the ethnic communities of people who are Buddhists from birth and who have immigrated to America.”
Well, why is that? Because there are two things that are, kind of, cardinal for Buddhism, and this still remains the case, and one of them is the multi-life perspective. We’ve all had infinite previous lives. We, as individuals, we carry genes, yes, but we also carry our soul gene, you could call it. They do, kind of, call it that esoterically. And we have our own choice of life forms, and we have done many of them before and we’re now human. And then, we will have, we’re threatened with the probability of more future lives.
So, this, sort of, has a background reality sense, and I don’t make it a mystic belief. I consider it a mystical belief to believe that you can be nothing just by dying. Since there is no evidence that nothing is there and it’s not a place you can go to. So, we know we go to deep sleep but we always wake up. We don’t have any evidence of that, I consider that mystical.
The multi-life thing is the more default, sort of, situation that everything in nature is a continuity, law of thermodynamics, you know, the conservation of energy, all this sort of thing. So, that’s the default view, but that is not the main view in America, so therefore Buddhism doesn’t really have a start, you could say. Buddha science, Buddha scientific teaching, doesn’t really have much purchase in America because of that.
The second thing which relates to that is monasticism. We do have Catholic monasticism, but it’s not the dominant thing because the Protestant ethic dominates the industrial American society, and that is, sort of, no lunch if no work. No work, no lunch. No free lunch. The idea of someone being a dropout and having a lifelong study scholarship because they want to attain Nirvana is not really going to appeal to the Congress, the president, the mayors of the cities or whatever you will, corporations, they don’t really get it.
So those two things, the existence of a free sangha, a community where people can drop out into and be supported without any student loans to study lifelong, which will include meditating and other ethical behavior, but also a lot of learning is involved. We don’t have that. We don’t have a multi-life perspective that is so critical in choosing how to spend a human life. That’s the background.
I was always saying that. However, having said that, let’s say one other thing, I consider Buddhism in America now to be of good service in the sense that there’s this whole mindfulness craze and people are taking it, kind of, superficially, but then, nevertheless, it helps them become more aware of how their mind works, about their own mind, that is. Not some scientific study, but actually engaging their own mind and figuring out how to surf the energies of the mind, the emotions and the ideas, the tears, and the happinesses, and so on.
That’s really valuable. Even though in many cases, it is not, sort of, the full treatment, you could say. It’s still very, very valuable that that is becoming so desirable by people. This is like the yoga movement where many people have a much better time in their old age with less arthritis, and less bad digestion, and bad diet, and so on, because they begin to get into yoga. But a lot of them just do it, you know, to pick up girls or to be like a calisthenic or something, and they don’t think about anything much mental involved with it. But, still, it helps, it still helps. So, that’s one really great service.
Another really great service, which I think is a topic close to your heart, is that I think the awareness of death has become more open and less hidden. And I think Buddhism can take some credit for that in the end because of “The Book of the Dead,” so-called, wrongly titled “Book of the Dead.” And because of its way of connecting with the hospice movement and the whole, kind of, reevaluation of the role of medicine and this kind of thing. So, I think that’s another really good thing about it.
The people who are here from Japan, and China, and Vietnam, and Cambodia, and wherever they’ve had to flee from because of the disruption of the planet going on everywhere, wars and so on. They are bringing their own versions of Buddhism with them and they’re practicing them in their own communities as natural things. A bigger presence of those people is very helpful, I think, in America, increasing our sense of diversity and increasing our sense of, you know, not being the center whole, the only main way that everybody has to live in the universe and so on. I think that’s also very, very good.
It could be, you know, with the work of Thubten Chodron in Washington State, Pema Chodron in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia or wherever she is. These two great nuns are actually beginning to found Buddhist mendicant hideouts, you know, like nunneries. We use the Christian language but they’re always a little different in Buddhism. Anyway, they’re beginning to found them, and so, there is a tiny beginning of Buddhist monasticism, you could call it, happening here in America. That’s also a good thing.
So, generally, that’s it, that’s what I would say. In that light, you know, in my elder age, one of the things that I’m most focusing on, I just want to say upfront, I recently went to Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project training in Minneapolis. Now that I’m an Emeritus Professor, I’d have a little more or should have a little more time. Because I think that the older generation must really make a special effort now because we’ll be dead, but our grandchildren will be really suffering climate refugees if this goes on.
I couldn’t make enough emphasis on the coming election to remove the government… Let’s not talk Republican and Democratic, let’s talk climate denier versus climate activist. We should really be removing the levers of power and government from the climate deniers because they are clearly not being sane. We should get the levers of power into the hands of climate activists which, to who will challenge the petroleum complex which is a huge octopus that has control of the society and the Congress at the moment. This is really, really critical.
There was a great editorial by Michelle Alexander who is a wonderful sociologist who wrote a great book called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” about the mass incarceration going on with the people of color in our country. She said in this op-ed, I think in “The Times,” six months ago, maybe, “I wish I believed in future lives. I, unfortunately, don’t,” she said, “But I wish I did, and I wish lots of people did,” she said, “because this might get some of the people who are behaving so recklessly and cruelly about the planet and about other people to decide they better shape up because they’re going to be back, and they’re going to have to suffer the consequences of how they’ve treated the world.” I was so touched by that even though she’s not into it. But I would say she maybe met some Buddhists or something, you know. I would give credit to Buddhists for making her think like that. Although she should find out that it’s sensible to actually believe it, but which, she doesn’t do, you know. Never mind. Okay, what’s next?
Yeah, well… You know, I want to just elaborate on one small thing here because when we transition shortly here, Bob, to discussions on dream yoga, maybe a little bit on sleep yoga, and then bardo yoga, in relation to the first question, one of the things that interests me is are we, in fact, ready for things like tantric Buddhism, the Vajrayana in the West? Can we handle the subtleties and the thermonuclear power of this spiritual technology? And even, lastly, do we deserve it? Because on one level, look at the scandals, it would suggest, no, we’re not ready. I listened to your very compelling podcast about sexual abuse, which I found riveting. On one level, it really does suggest that maybe we don’t deserve this spiritual technology, maybe we’re not ready for it because if we just open our eyes and see what the alleged masters, a couple bad apples in the bushel have done, there’s cause for concern. So, what do you think about that?
Well, I think that we do deserve everything because we’re human beings, so we deserve every possible teaching. However, we deserve to understand it and to be taught about it in a way that is practical for us. Also, I think that one of the great contributions of Tibet is it picked up from where India left off. You know, in India, the Tantra existed from the time of the Buddha, for sure. There’s no doubt if anybody looks objectively. You don’t just date by some fragment of a text that somebody found somewhere in the garbage, but you look at the meaning of things.
Yet, for 1,000 years after Buddha’s time, it was preserved very, very esoterically, not because people didn’t deserve the teaching right away, but because most people couldn’t use it properly. The society was not ready for it. So the society had to be developed up to a certain point, which it took about 1,000 years to do. I mean, initially the universal vehicle Buddhist teaching, that is the one about the bodhisattva, and everyone should become free of suffering, and so on. Not the individual alone, what I call the universal vehicle built on top of the foundation of the individual vehicle. Well, the individual vehicle was the mainstream thing for about 500 years and then the universal vehicle joined it and added to it. It could have been, it was kept esoteric, in other words, for that first 500 years because people would’ve confused non-duality with a kind of simplistic caste system-corrupted monism. It took time for the individualism to emerge in Indian society, which was helped by the individual vehicle. Then, again, another 500 years, and then the Vajrayana, the more immediate, what I call apocalyptic vehicle, the fact of being able to achieve a very high evolutionary goal in a single life to a very high tech, kind of, like you can call a genetic engineering method.
Then, that did become very well known in the last 500 years of Indian Buddhism, and the flowering before the beginning of the Islamic domination of India. For those 500 years, it was an amazing golden culture, fabulous. Attracted people from all over Asia which reproduced it in their own societies.
The one we were thinking about was this Tibetan one. The Tibetans got this mother lode of that culture because they were nearest to India and so the Siddhas, the great adepts, the ones who knew both individual vehicle, they knew universal vehicle, and they knew the apocalyptic or Vajra vehicle. They moved right in. The Tibetans started from where India left off. They didn’t have to hold it in super esoteric level for too long. They massively monasticized, they massively bodhisattvized or universalized, and then they massively used the esoteric teachings without too much scandal.
Now there were scandals even then. You know, if you’re going to go by the effect of some scandals, you’d think that a whole society shouldn’t learn these more super high-tech things. Then, every Asian society doesn’t deserve it either because they had a lot of scandals, too. It’s not an East-West thing, it’s just a human thing. The difference between the militaristic, authoritarian, social system, it doesn’t allow much individualism to the people, doesn’t allow a lot of education to the people, doesn’t want everybody trying to save the world, they just want people to obey orders and save their regime.
They don’t like any of this kind of higher education that the Buddha offered to people. Not a religion, really, but a higher education. It used a form of religion eventually in India when that was convenient, but actually it was a anti-religion in Buddha’s original movement. He dropped out from the Vedic Hinduism that existed and his people, they didn’t perform weddings, they didn’t do birth ceremonies, they didn’t do funerals, they didn’t tell fortunes, they didn’t do psychiatry with people. In a way, they did anything but what the religious people did not to draw down the persecution of the Brahmans upon themselves.
Instead, they represented a method system and an institution for people to educate the higher faculties that the human being had. It was a massive success spread everywhere as that system of education. In different countries where the militarism was highly entrenched, like Samurai-type countries, it was very much resisted.
Now we see in America that Buddhist education is, kind of, iffy for people who are really into, sort of, the “Rambo” level of our culture. It’s, actually, officially a thing, I think, in Great Britain as well. If you’re a Buddhist or you’ve had anything to do with Buddhism, you’re not allowed to serve in the nuclear military because they think you might not press the button when given the order. Because if you’re, you know, ginger enough, you’re being ginger about taking life and things like that. That’s an official policy, actually. So, they know that the Buddhist nonviolent, Ahimsa, view is a little tricky in regard to a militaristic aspect of society, that’s the thing. So, that’s the only mystery.
So, now where we are is in this amazing moment in America where we’re the most militarized country in history, I would say. Huge budget and all the discretionary money, mainly, the bulk of it goes to the military. We have, well, quite a few wars, we have, you know, bases all over the world, and yet, we can’t win a war because it’s past the time in history where anybody can win a war.
Therefore, in a way, our resistance to the Buddhist peace education and a different use of human life, you know, a basic shift, being, use your human life to conquer yourself and your own base instincts, and your own bad habits, and so forth as opposed to use your human life to conquer others by becoming a billionaire, or a politician, or a king, or a whatever, slaveholder, you know, whatever.
That shift will have to happen much more rapidly here than it did in Tibet if we’re going to survive. Not only here but in Russia and China. China is an interesting case because they are acting very militaristic right now thinking of themselves as having been depredated on by the West as well as by the Mongols and the Manchus, by the way. But, never mind that. So, they think they have to be really viciously militaristic and yet they have Buddhism, sort of, ingrained in different portions of their culture.
So it’s, kind of, a confusion for them, but I think if we join, they’ll join, you know? We’ll start this more massive education and we’ll diminish the violence. We are shooting. I saw, what was it? In 2018 or 2017, 47,000 people killed themselves by suicide, and 90% with guns. Much more than the mass shootings, actually. You know, we spend all this money and we watch all these violent movies, and it’s not good for us, you know?
Yeah. This is incredibly provocative, Bob, but I’m curious, when we backpedal into what would make the West more fertile or ripe for these incredibly sophisticated technologies of the Vajrayana, of the apocalyptic vehicle, I love that translation, by the way, is it seems to me that we miss out on one of these foundational tenets. We tend to gloss over it in the West where the preliminaries are considered more important than the main practice.
I mention this because when we slowly transition into things like dream yoga, everybody rushes to the goodies, everybody rushes to try to get lucidity but they’re not doing the proper work. So, wouldn’t you say, Bob, that we in the West are quick too quick to jump over Sila, Samadhi, and Prajna? So, can you talk to us a little bit about the importance of doing that in the West?
Of course. Well, my new book, if it ever gets printed, it’s on its final touch-up, it’s in the editor’s hands, though, so hopefully it will. It is called, and it really deals with the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth. But noble about the way Tibetan Buddhism does, actually, doesn’t leave and depart from the Fourth Noble Truth, but it just unpacks them with more science, with more methodology adding to the original versions that were taught to the individual vehicle.
For example, take the term, “Abhidharma or Prajna,” you know, means “wisdom.” We think of that, and we think of it wrongly, I think, I’m afraid, as just being some sort of ripe old age, some old codger gets wise, seen 100 winters, and knows when the groundhog is coming out, stroking his beard and acting like whatever, and not smoking his cigar anymore to live longer.
But that’s not wisdom, wisdom is representative, wisdom is a 16-year-old holding a flaming sword and a book. The sword is the sword of analysis, the scalpel of cutting away confusion and problems and knots. The book is the book of transcended wisdom, which means the knowledge of the true nature of reality.
So, the Buddhist education has this preposterous claim at its foundation that every human being is capable of understanding the world perfectly, not just Einstein. Or, I say, Einstein blew it here and there. You know, every human being is capable of understanding the world, and not only that, but every human being has to understand the world in order to find joy. Every human being deserves joy. The suffering thing in the First Noble Truth is only a wake-up call about living in an uneducated, ignorant manner, and thereby suffering unnecessarily.
Buddha’s whole point is that you don’t have to do that, you can live in Nirvana, which is not only the wonderful Indian restaurant they used to have on Central Park South in New York, which was looking out over the park and having really great curries. But Nirvana is everything, actually, according to Buddha’s great discovery. So, we all can have it, we all should have it, we need the education to get it, and we need it systematically.
Now, for example, meditating. Everybody has been selling Buddhism and Hinduism, pretty much, and then there’s the competitive ones from the Western tradition, Sufis and things. But they’ve been selling it as meditation, that’s it, “Just meditate and you’ll be fine.” And that is total nonsense. Everyone is meditating all the time. Some people meditate on Fox News 13 hours a day. And, naturally, they’re feeling a little rattled because that’s what they’re meditating on.
So, the point is not just meditating, the point is, what are you meditating on? And, therefore, for example, in the Eightfold Path, the first thing that you have to do is not meditate, you have to look at what you think reality is and what you think you are. You correct your view, you analyze the view that you’re handed by your culture of what you are and what you’re supposed to do.
“Where am I, what am I doing here?” The famous statement of Admiral Stillwell or whatever his name was. Ross Perot’s vice president, my favorite statement in American politics, “Where am I? What am I doing here?” Well, you have to answer that question for yourself unless you want to live like a robot and do what other people tell you. Why should you do what they tell you? What are you, and where are you, and where are you going? And how do you have to prepare to go there?
You are very prepared when you go downtown, when you go to the office, when you go on a summer vacation trip, you organize, you have all the papers and everything, bookings. Why don’t you prepare for life like that? Well, you get educated, but then educating mostly, they put you in job training. There’s a little liberal education for supposedly some sort of elite, but don’t have time for that in high school, don’t have time for that, just reading, writing, STEM, you know, and computer programming now.
But the point is, first, you have to do that, you have to, “Why would I want to sit and type in a computer all my life, and what would I be typing, and who am I?” And so on. So, that’s the first question. Then when you answer that in a reasonably sensible way with the help of a lot of experts and you don’t accept… Buddha’s whole thing was, don’t accept dogmas and doctrines because somebody else says they’re great. Don’t follow authorities. Think it through yourselves.
That’s what you have to do, and you come up with what is sensible for you and what will motivate you. Then, second thing, once you do that, you say, “Well, if that’s what, it makes most sense to me that I am and life is about, then I should live my life doing such and such,” and you come up with a life purpose. And then third, fourth, and fifth, you get into correcting your language skills and use of language, you get in correcting your ethical behavior, and you select a mode of livelihood.
These are all ethical-type things to engage with others so that you have the basis in a, sort of, stable life because you’re interacting nicely with others, they like you, you like them, and you speak right, you know, and you listen well, and then you don’t do anything harmful to make money or to make your livelihood. And those are the next three things to meditate, how to do that. And then, you think about creativity and, finally, you actually sit and practice mindfulness and then Samādhi, you know, the last two, seven and eight are meditating because you cannot get anywhere meditating if you haven’t first corrected your view of yourself in the world and corrected your behavior of your way of interacting with other people. That’s just practical, any education system will tell you that.
What is the title of the book you are about to release? Can you share the title with us so our listeners can look for it when it comes out?
Yes, of course, I will. Yes, I promise, I promise. It has a nice title, actually. It’s called, if they let me keep the title, it’s called “Buddhas Have More Fun.”
Oh, that’s beautiful.
But not Buddhists and not Buddhists. Buddhas.
Right, the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist and we always have to remember that, right?
Right. Well, he, sort of, showed the way once he was enlightened, he showed that it would be nice. But they didn’t use the word “Buddhist,” actually, they used the word “insider.”
Yeah. Exactly, yeah.
An inner person, an inward person, a person who is in a community, you know, that’s what they used. Only much later did these Hindus use the word “Buddhist,” “Baud’dha,” you know, in Sanskrit. They didn’t use that early on.
It’s like you know this better than me, of course. Like, chipa versus nangpa right? Insider versus outsiders.
That’s right. That was in, that inside realism. You know, I like to say that Buddhism, basically, is being realistic. So, if you’re inside the sort of effort to try to be realistic about the world and yourself, then that’s what it means. So, that’s what, you’re inside, be realistic.
Yeah, I just want to put an exclamation point on what you’re saying here, because also, our mutual friend, Ellen Wallace speaks a great deal about this as well, is that, you know, we very quickly forget that without a proper foundation of ethics, morality, if the field that has to be there for these higher so-called spiritual practices to even come about, I mean, I would argue that…
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