Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon


Born in New York City in 1941, Bob Thurman left home at 12 to attend Philips Exeter Academy, an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Although Bob went on to become a preeminent academic at Harvard, Amherst, and Columbia, he never received a high school diploma as a result of having fled Exeter one month before graduation in a quest to join Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Following a disappointing first marriage to a wealthy socialite and the loss of an eye in an accident, Bob was compelled to visit India in 1962 and became a monk under the Dalai Lama’s tutelage in 1964. Seduced by the excitement of the civil rights activism of the ’60s, Bob renounced his robes, as he felt he’d be a more effective change agent as part of the academic community. His second wife, Nena von Schlebrügge, was a fashion model who had been married to Timothy Leary. Together for nearly 50 years, Bob and Nena have enjoyed close friendship with the Dalai Lama and have been pivotal in launching Tibet House and Menla Center in New York while raising four children, one of whom is actress Uma Thurman.

Having led a fascinating and unusual life, Bob was chosen as one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine. A sincere seeker and influential scholar, he is the author and translator of many important books, including The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Common Ground: How would you summarize Bob Thurman to someone who’s never heard of you?

Bob Thurman: I am a translator and an author of the knowledge of the Nalanda tradition of Buddhist Interscience, as it is called, in which I follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I’m trying to get the American-Euro-Western mentality to shift its approach to their own minds in a systematic, scientific way. That connects me to Tibet because Tibetans are the ones who preserved this knowledge from India, uniquely for the last 1,000 years since India was overrun by an Islamic nation and Buddhism was crushed out of India. So I have a special sense of obligation to help Tibet in its hour of great disaster. I would say that my life’s work is to help bring recognition to the deep and ancient and respected wisdom of indigenous cultures. I am like an alien in a WASP-y body, but I would like to help expose the error of American exceptionalism. We think we’re at the vanguard of human knowledge and enterprise, but actually we are still a bit barbarian in the way we threaten life on earth.

How did you grow up?

I was born in New York City, but I must go further back, as I’m certain I lived in Tibet and Mongolia in recent previous lives. I took rebirth in New York City and felt, from as young as I can remember, like a stranger in a strange land. I was the middle son, and my brothers were strangers to me. My parents I loved a lot, but they were so emotional. My mother was an actress. I had to be a peacemaker in this very emotional, artistic New York family. Like impoverished gentry, I went to good schools, although we were not rich. I went to Philips Exeter, an elite boarding school, when I was 12 and was thrilled to get out of the house. I literally grew 13 inches in one year. I thrived in the area of academic learning and mystical, philosophical, psychological explorations. A lot of my friends were Latin American, so I was pretty fluent in Spanish, and I left school one month before graduation in an attempt to join Fidel Castro’s revolution. I didn’t realize that he was going to be a cigar-chomping commissar; I felt a kindred spirit in the poet. So I was kicked out of Exeter and never graduated, but the Harvard people had already accepted me as a sophomore with advanced standing. At Exeter, they wanted me to sign something saying I had had a moment of temporary insanity. I refused to sign and never apologized. I gave a speech there saying the school was not living up to its motto, which is truth and goodness. They are only into truth and smarts, but they don’t cultivate goodness. And they gave us too much homework.

While still a teen, you had a fancy high-society marriage.

It was a silly thing; my father was in disagreement about it and said it would come to no good, but I was so willful. While at Harvard I had an affair at 18, and she was 25. I was head over heels, and she too became quite attached and proposed that we should marry. I said, “No, how can I marry?” They were from a very wealthy French family, and I told her I had no intention of being a banker or a stockbroker or working at Dad’s business. I was going to be a poet and a radical. But her father liked me and insisted I accept a trust fund to overcome that objection. It was true love, and we had this lovely daughter that I was very proud of, but I was a little freaked out about that because I was only 19. I didn’t know about taking care of a child, but I loved her and there are pictures of me holding her up with pride and joy.

You left it all behind. What was the tipping point?

I lost my eye in an accident and had a truly weird mystical experience. It added to my general feeling of alienation. I decided I had to follow my bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say later. I went to India because I had been reading a lot of Herman Hesse and Jung and also some Buddhist and Hindu and Sufi literature. I had this instinct that India had something for me.

Because we had plenty of money, I tried to get my wife to come with me and that we could travel first class with the baby and carouse with the swamis and gurus. But she got freaked out and decided I was disoriented because of my eye loss. I said, “Well, I have to go,” so we separated at that point. I gave back the trust fund and the expensive paintings and took off for India as a wandering fakir. I spent 10 months on the road through the Middle East before getting to India. And the minute I met the Tibetans, that was it—I was home.

You met the Dalai Lama in 1962 and became the first Western monk.

He was under a lot of stress in the early 1960s, and I saw His Holiness in talks and was intrigued by him, but I didn’t hang with him in any sense until 1964, after my Mongolian root lama in New Jersey, of all places, had started educating me in Buddhism. I had wanted to become a monk, but my teacher kept telling me, “No, you’re not going to be a monk. You’re living like a monk now. You have been for a couple of years, but your karma is in American society. You will not maintain the monk life.” But my root teacher took me to India to leave me in the care of the Dalai Lama, saying, “Maybe he’ll make you a monk; you can start bothering him instead of me.”

Can you describe those early meetings with His Holiness?

We met in Sarnath, a holy place where Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma. I already spoke Tibetan fairly fluently, and my teacher introduced me as this crazy, intelligent, devoted but a little bit proud American boy who wants to be a monk. He said, “I don’t recommend you make him a monk because I don’t think he can manage this forever, although he sincerely thinks he can. He wants to; he’s not pretending.” His Holiness said to me, “Fine, come to Dharamsala. We will work out a curriculum; I will take you in hand.” I was forced to study Tibetan medicine, astronomy, and astrology, as well as my philosophical subjects and my monk preparation subjects. I was only the second Westerner he had ever met who spoke Tibetan fluently, but I wasn’t like a German mountain climber. We became very friendly, having philosophical, scientific, psychological discussions in his language. I wish I had a tape recording of those, but I wouldn’t have thought of it at the time. They were really fun dialogues. I had to make up a lot of words, like for the id and the unconscious. Now in Tibetan we have these words, but then we didn’t.

But your root teacher was right; it was not your karma to stay a monk.

It turns out he understood the West much better than His Holiness at that time. He had lived in America since 1955. I came back a gung-ho monk, and they sent me to Argentina on a mission and to the monastery in New Jersey before I was supposed to go back to India when I had a eureka moment that he’d been right. It’s wasn’t that I was missing girlfriends and sexuality and my ex-wife. I was pretty ecstatic sublimating those erotic energies into meditational life.

What caused the shift?

It was 1965–1966, and all my peers from Harvard and Exeter were part of the civil rights movement and the antiwar thing. Kennedy had been killed, Johnson was in power, and I started venturing out of the monastery to attend marches, being an activist. I realized there was no way to be a Buddhist monk at that time in America, that it would be better to go back to college and be a professor. After I quit being a monk, I met Nena, the lady I fell in love with for about 50 years. She helped me get through college and have four more kids.

Nena was a fashion model who was briefly married to Timothy Leary. Did you know him?

Very well. He was a very bright and clever guy. He was a little bit square when I first met him at Harvard. He was into giving people very low doses of psilocybin and then putting them in a box and observing them. He had no idea of any spirituality. He never did get into spirituality, like Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) did or Ralph Metzner. Tim remained a sociologist, scientist, materialist. His solution to everything was “take a dose.” He ended up hard living in Hollywood and acting very American. So Nena and I had both been briefly married to older spouses.

Were you part of that whole Harvard psychedelic movement?

I’m a hermit sort, so never really part of any movement. I liked to meditate and read and write. I benefited from the psychedelic movement. After I lost my eye I looked into it, so to speak, opening the doors of perception as Aldous Huxley explained. Luckily, I had good intuition that it was not itself the way. I thought the movement went wrong precisely from Leary’s leadership by insisting that just getting stoned was the main thing. For some, the stoned thing was like a vision quest but for very few—the shamanic sort. Ram Dass understood this, and he became himself a good Hindu, a good yogi. Some psychiatrists were using it very creatively in the ’60s—to cure alcoholism, for example—before it became illegal.

Your story parallels that of Nicholas Vreeland, the famous playboy whose grandmother was Diana Vreeland. He is the subject of the movie Monk with a Camera. He was a dashing socialite who became a Tibetan abbot.

He’s wonderful. Along with some nuns like Pema Chödrön and Thubten Chodron, he gives hope for the institution of Western monasticism. They are doing it properly. Because of our strong Protestant bias about how people have to work, monasticism is considered a cop-out. Catholic monasteries have low populations, and the priest sex scandals have not helped. Although I’m an ex-monk, and my lama laughs and says, “Among ex-monks, you are the most enthusiastic about monasticism.” From a sociological perspective, I believe monasticism as invented by Buddha is the most important institution to demilitarize our overly militaristic cultures. America truly needs it. Maybe the next generations will bring it.

The Buddha speaks of dukkha, loosely translated as “suffering.” What can you say about dukkha, specifically as it relates to your early adulthood?

Dukkha is everybody’s experience of life. There’s no doubt about it. I still experience dukkha. Look at what is still happening to Tibet. Every day we deal with dukkha, but that is just because we’re unenlightened. I don’t pretend to be enlightened, but from what I’ve learned and by inference, I can see that the reality of life is beautiful and blissful. That was Buddha’s discovery, that for the unenlightened, the world is suffering. In my early stages, it was a lot of fun once I got out of the house, but I’m always sad about my family from my first wife.

When I came back from being a monk, my first wife started to freak when I fell in love and started a family with Nena, my soulmate, so to speak. It became a painful Dickens issue, where it became hard to see my daughter. I didn’t get to know my grandchildren. The older one [Dash Snow] became an artist. There were struggles between my daughter and my ex-wife over him. He was indulged and spoiled and addicted to heroin. That’s how he died from an overdose at 27, about six years ago. He was a dynamic, wonderful young guy, a little crazy, but I had no ability to help because I didn’t know him. He had a daughter, so I have a great-granddaughter. Very sad.

You raised four children; were dharma teachings part of their upbringing?

We raised them to think freely, but I would say they mostly have a sense that there is such a thing as a former and future life. They have a sense of a higher type of consciousness, and they have an ethical sense, and they are kind and sweet. They’re not necessarily card-carrying Buddhists, but they’re not Marines or police chiefs, either.

What’s your advice to parents who are trying to raise spiritual children in this material world?

I don’t like brainwashing children, even for good things. I think we have to have faith in the natural goodness of people and raise them to be happy and free and kind and compassionate, and they will follow their bliss. When I was younger as an ex-monk, I was a little more fanatical about Buddhism, so I might have pushed a bit more then. Once, when we were having a family audience with His Holiness in Dharamsala, I wanted to bow formerly, just to show the children an example of what you do in Tibetan culture. As I went down to make a prostration, he caught me as if I were trying to shake his hand, so what happened is that I flopped over as he didn’t let go of my hand. The Dalai Lama didn’t think it was necessary for my children to do this and that it was okay to have a more Western type of greeting. Later we were sitting and chatting and heard this flopping noise. It was our youngest son, who was only 2½ at the time, and he was flopping and doing the Australian crawl across the floor, imitating my flop ceremony. We had a good laugh.

Your daughter, Uma Thurman, is a household name. How does it feel to have a daughter more famous than you?

It’s great; she’s wonderful. She didn’t really want to kill 167 people in Kill Bill, but that’s a Quentin [Tarantino] thing, you know. She felt obliged to do that, although she was nursing a baby at the time. It was quite a tough change of roles. She’s had some parts she didn’t like as much and parts she liked. She prefers being a mom and raising kids and has another small kid now that she’s very happy with. I am happy that she’s had some success. She stays in very close touch with us all. She’s lovely. We are all very proud and love her a lot. It’s not a problem.

Does Uma show up when the Dalai Lama visits?

Actually, she doesn’t try to compete with Richard Gere as being the big Hollywood star who is close with the Dalai Lama, despite how close I am with him. She is very respectful and has had some wonderful dreams and visions about him. When she was younger, she had some beautiful initiations and teachings with him. She doesn’t make a big fuss about it. She tries to be a regular person with her colleagues and not identify as a Tibet fanatic. I think when I croak she probably will do that more.

You have known the Dalai Lama for over 50 years. Could you have ever anticipated he would achieve the popularity he currently enjoys?

I did not. I was such a fanatic monk at one time, and I recommended to him in a very unfeeling and bad way—I’m embarrassed about it now—saying to him, “Why are you taking responsibility for Tibet?” I felt that he was like Shakyamuni [Gautama] Buddha, who left the throne and the kingdom to become a monk, and that he should do the same and focus on being a world teacher. I thought he would be great and ultimately help Tibet more that way. He said there was nothing he’d rather do than be a mendicant monk, but that there were elder Tibetans depending on him. He said some might even commit suicide if he didn’t take care of them—that it was his duty. Of course, I didn’t understand the Lama’s cultural role in the greater context, nor of the greatness of Tibet. It will prevail over communist China’s stupidity eventually; it’s just taking decades and decades.

People like you and Richard Gere have performed an invaluable dharma advancing his notoriety.

Richard has a come a long way with his friendship with His Holiness and deserves every award. The Dalai Lama is so important because he is basically Buddha’s living presence on the planet, there’s no doubt about it.

When the Dalai Lama went into exile, he traveled with The Oracle of Tibet. Did you ever meet him? What’s the story about the oracles?

I know the current one, and I knew the previous one who died, quite well. He’s the main State Oracle, and they have a number of other oracles. They are like shamans and are chosen by various kinds of spirits so the spirit can speak through them, like we have mediums and channels in our culture. The spirits are not necessarily enlightened but mundane and carry helpful information. The oracles become very different when they’re in their mediumistic state, as if under a seizure. You really do feel the presence of something else, and it’s powerful. Even if you know Tibetan, they speak in tongues, and it’s hard to understand what they say. It takes a specialist to figure it out. The Dalai Lama doesn’t always follow it to the letter; it’s just one kind of advice he gets. It’s a beautiful ritual, with costumes. It’s the integration of high civilization and folk civilization in a harmonious way.

In our culture, we killed almost all the Native American people and lost their connection to the land and the spirits of the land. We have an alienated and transient and migrant culture that lives like in concrete trailer homes. I wish we had an oracle in Congress, a Lakota shaman, someone possessed by the spirit of Crazy Horse [laughs]. This person would stalk up and down the aisles and look at the elected officials and call those out as traitors for destroying the land. If there was some veracity, this would keep our Senators in line lest they be fingered out for harboring some personal corrupt greed.

There is some question about the succession of Dalai Lamas. Can you talk about how a number of Dalai Lamas were allegedly murdered by the regents?

There were no fake Dalai Lamas. However, in the 19th century, between the 9th Dalai Lama and the 12th, they died young, and there is suspicion of foul play. That last century of the Manchu Empire had become decadent, and they didn’t honor the relationship between the earlier emperors and the Tibetans. Also, they felt they didn’t need the Dalai Lamas to keep the Mongols peaceful because the Mongols had already been demilitarized. So due to this manipulation, there were four Dalai Lamas who were not allowed to gain their majority and gain their insight and respect and ability to come into full bloom. The institution was weak up until the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas.

To be a Buddhist, do you have to believe in reincarnation?

I think so. You have to look at the evidence for reincarnation, and if you do it is very persuasive. The materialists, scientists, and those who are influenced by them shout and scream, “Where’s the evidence?” Meanwhile, their belief, which is that the mind is nothing and becomes nothing and is revealed to be nothing—just by the brain stopping—has no evidence. Spiritual nihilistic materialism is simplistic. There is no evidence for nothing, and there never will be. Nobody is ever going to call back from having died and say, “Hey, I don’t exist, there’s no need to fear hell. No need to fear negative future space.” It’s an incoherent idea philosophically and scientifically that the continuum of the mind, which is an energy continuum, should be the one exception to the second law of thermodynamics. A continuum of consciousness as well as a continuum of other forms of energy is a natural thing. Buddhism is not saying you have to believe it to be a card-carrying Buddhist; it wants people to look at reality and to see what there is and isn’t evidence for.

There is a trend of mindfulness being taught in schools and corporations. It’s a new buzzword with roots in Buddhism, but it is secular and simple. What’s your opinion?

I love it because they’re taking a Buddhist service of helping people be more mindful of how their own minds work and making it accessible to a broad population. It’s stripped of connotation of religion so people don’t think they have to convert to something. Of course, it will not have as strong an effect on them if they don’t push it to another level, where they’re more self-critical. Not only self-aware but more selfcritical and using it in the context of cognitive psychotherapy to deconstruct negative mental habits and reinforce positive mental habits. It helps change the psyches, babysitting the mind, bit by bit.

Same with yoga. People say yoga is from Hinduism, and the practice is sometimes maligned as a calisthenics or physical exercise, but I’m all for any partial use of a useful thing. The health benefits of yoga lead to the spiritual aspects. The meditations and breathing are links to the mental. When I was a bit younger I was a purist, thinking everyone should sit full lotus, but now you can go on a deck chair if this will help you become more self-aware and kinder.

Debatably, one of the shortcomings is that an incomplete dharma practice could produce a more mindful tyrant or a more mindful sniper.

To some extent that’s true, but not really because if you are more mindful, then eventually you will become aware that being a coward is no fun. Take Vladimir Putin, who is causing so much trouble reasserting the KGB in Russia. If he was mindful, he would realize it’s no fun killing people and being a tyrant. Stalin was a miserable alcoholic.

Much of the credit for this mindfulness trend goes to S. N. Goenka and his exstudents, such as Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Levine.

I agree. I particularly liked when Goenka worked in the Indian prison system. Jon Kabat-Zinn too—he distinguished mindfulness practice strongly from Buddhism because he’s trying to reach out to people who are sick in hospitals. Sharon and Jack are religious people who have dharma centers.

We’re speaking about Sharon, and earlier you were praising nuns like Pema Chödrön, but Tibetan Buddhism has been typically patriarchal with the lamas.

True. Tibet was a conquest military empire and has male chauvinism like other Asian societies. Although they have become pacified by the monasticization and of the making of mainstream Buddhism, they did not rise to the point where they have equal numbers of male and female incarnations. I think American Buddhist culture is the one where females could be the dominant force. The Dalai Lama himself has suggested many times that he may incarnate next as a woman since women tend to be less violent and militaristic, and that’s what we need in this century. Of course this alarmed the chauvinist Tibetans. But nobody’s perfect; nobody’s claiming perfection.

You’re the only person I know who has ever circumambulated Mount Kailash.

It is one of the most powerful pilgrimage places on the earth—a magic place. I went back six times and wrote Circulating the Sacred Mountain, which I recommend. It’s arduous but really, really magical.

Your whole life is magical, rife with the highest blessings.

I am very lucky and fortunate. Losing an eye was a blow, but my original Mongol guru told me, “Just tell everybody you lost one and gained one thousand.” I can figure out that I’m not quite enlightened, but maybe in the next life. In the meantime, I’ve been so blessed by the thousand eyes of the wisdom of all the Buddhas. The Buddha dharma is an exquisite civilization and wisdom thing and physics and psychology and biology—it is wonderful. You see something new every time you look at a text or when you meditate a little bit or when you speak to His Holiness. The ocean of knowledge is infinite and wisdom. I do feel very blessed.

Do you have any particular regrets or sadness?

I spoke about it earlier. I’m always sad about my family from my first wife. That is a blow that I thought would have healed. The other sadness is that the Chinese and my beloved President Ji Xinping, who I know has a wonderful side, hasn’t managed to clean it up and has to go along with this faction and that faction and can’t go completely liberal. I think he wants to be like Gorbachev, but the gangster mentality in his circle is so powerful. Gorbachev and Yeltsin tried to over-liberalize, but they didn’t get rid of some really KGB-oriented types of people. They didn’t succeed. I love the sweet Russian people who love the dharma, but they are now falling back into the thrall of a KGB oligarchy. I’m very worried what is going to happen with them.

China has not broken free from that same kind of dictatorial oligarchy. The CommunistCapitalists—whatever they are—they are dictators. Very, very sad that that is still delayed. I would’ve hoped the ’80s and ’90s, after His Holiness’s Nobel Peace Prize, that the Chinese would realize, “Hey, let’s get along with the world; the world will respect us. We’re a big nation, we’re smart, we’re clever, we’re handsome. We could restore our old beautiful Chinese Buddhist culture.” This gangster Commie culture sucks. Who needs to conquer the world in the 21st century when we could all have more fun? I’m sad they still are struggling, and they’re not even as liberal as Kublai Khan.

I was hoping to see you next week at Burning Man, but just learned you’re not able to make it.

I was going to go for the wedding with some dear friends of mine, but I got a little bit ill a few weeks ago by overdoing it. Better I stay home, though I regret missing it and will most probably go next year because I am on leave and don’t have to teach right afterward.

What are your parting words to our enlightened Bay Area audience, particularly in light of the fact that this is our yoga issue?

Yoga means “yoking.” If you have a realistic view of your life and your precious human embodiment endowed with intelligence and access to enlightened teachings, then you are a vital force to evolving consciously toward the higher awareness of wisdom and compassion. That is the yoga of life. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is really nondual Tantra, going from the body, the central nervous system, and then deeper to the chakras. Nondualism leads to a deep, endless Tantra where your body is a sacred thing, a temple.

My parting words are that life itself should be a yoga. Yoke your life to higher ideals, and never be cynical and think the world is doomed or that everybody is a jerk and so you too can be a jerk. Don’t waste your precious human intelligence on such narrow-minded ideas. We’ve access to the bliss path of loving and helping others. Come visit, and let’s have a good time. The world will be saved by pure yogic happiness—that is a fact.

Rob Sidon is editor in chief and publisher of Common Ground.

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