Robert Thurman on How to Be a Good Buddhist

"Control your ethics, and you can practice the path to whatever extent you can."
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A man of many firsts: In 1965, Robert Thurman became the first American to be ordained in the Tibet Buddhist tradition, a ceremony presided over by no less than the 14th Dalai Lama. Following a brief period as a monk (he renounced his celibacy to marry his second wife, with whom he had four children including actress Uma Thurman), Thurman received his Ph.D. in Sanskrit Studies from Harvard, subsequently becoming a professor of religion and Sanskrit at Columbia University as well as cofounding Tibet House in 1986.

Thurman is widely considered to be a pioneer in the translation of Tibetan Buddhist literature into the English language and his impact in bringing its teachings to a Western audience is one that is still felt today.

How is Tibetan Buddhism different than the Buddhism that you may see practiced in Vietnam, Thailand or Japan?

Well, in some essential way, it's the same. Everybody’s trying to become enlightened. That means be happy, be kind, and be wise. And behave nicely. They're all trying to do that. What Tibetan Buddhism is really though, as the Dali Lama never tires of saying, is the continuation of the whole shish kabob of Buddhism that developed in India over 1500 years. Tibet is the nearest place to North India. It was part of Indian civilization, a very constituted part.

But I digress. With Tibetan Buddhism reemerging back into the world today, the world has access to the original, big, huge flower of Buddhism that bloomed in India.

So Tibetan Buddhism, coming back to the question after a brief excursion, brings us back to the Buddhist civilization that the world needs now, which doesn't mean that the world needs religion. It means that the world needs to stop following this idea that human beings can't understand the world, that they have to follow authorities.

We need to stop this idea that human beings are basically violent and have to all be locked up or restrained. People have to understand that we can uncover deeper understandings that will make us happier. We can get along very well with other people, other races, other genders, other nations, whatever it is. That's the gift Tibetan Buddhism is bringing this back to the whole planet. It isn't making people members of some sect connected to some mysterious thing in Tibet that's going to allow them to escape.

What drew you to become a monk?

What made me do it? When I discovered Buddhism through the Tibetan lens. I discovered the writing of Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu, this text called “Advice to the King” — blew my mind.

In many ways, I would say I’m a lost monk. 

Me too. Well, here's the thing. In some Buddhist countries, you can be a monk for a while and then go on to be a layperson. But that’s not the case in Tibet. Which is why my old Mongolian master told me: “Don't be a monk. It's bad in Tibetan culture, it's embarrassing to quit.” I really never properly answered your question. My reason [for being a monk] was that, for me, it was a way of professionally studying all the time. That was really all our reason. But then what I didn't realize was the sociological side of it, that he did, that old Mongolian lama. Which was that, at the time, there was no place for a Westerner to do something like that. All my fellow peers, they just thought I was nuts. Because in the Protestant work ethic worldview, it's not honorable to be a monk. Anyway, then he took me to the Dalai Lama because I kept insisting, "I wanna be a monk." I probably was a monk in many previous lives undoubtedly. And undoubtedly you were.


How can somebody be a good Buddhist and not know the dharma?

Life purpose. Buddha is as Buddha does. Control your ethics, and you can practice the path to whatever extent you can. The point is it's not necessary to be a good Buddhist. It's necessary to be a good person. That could mean Buddhist knowledge and Buddhist services help you be a better or a good Christian. It could help you be a good Jew, it could help you be a good Muslim, a good Hindu. Because those services are physiological services, philosophical scientific services, ethical services, polemical services, medicine — whatever you want.

So my thing is, try to be a good person, look for a methodology on how to do that and educate yourself. Not to be redundant, but your task is not how to be a good Buddhist, it's how to be a good person.

…Of which love and compassion are a part of.

Exactly. Because, at the end of the day, we are around, in some for, forever. That is not a Buddhist thing. Lots of other traditions feel that the default logical thing is that we will continue in some form, even though we will not ever be the same. Our continuum will continue and, therefore, we're responsible for what happens to it. And, the second thing I think that's really neat, is that we also are other people. We're not just what's inside our skin. We're all interwoven and we know that in a family. People may know that on a team or in a military platoon or in a club or something.

And they identify with other people. And that human being has flexible identification ability. The more broadly we identify with others, the greater we are. That's the real reason for not killing in Buddhism. That's the evolutionary reason not to kill and to save lives. You save a life and then you somehow are that life. And it is you. And you kill a life and you separate yourself from that and then you become a narrower being yourself. That's the beauty of karma, which is Buddhist biology and Buddhist ethics really, not just religious orders. So that's key. Just be a good person. You are a good person.

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