Touting the Benefits of Buddhism for Non-Buddhists

By Teresa Watanabe, LA Times Staff Writer, March 20, 2005

Americans who don't want to embrace the religion still can gain by taking advantage of its practices, says Robert Thurman.

Los Angeles, USA -- Robert Thurman has been called the Billy Graham of Buddhism. But not long into lunch at a Toluca Lake restaurant this week, Thurman - a Columbia University religion professor famed as the first Westerner ordained by the Dalai Lama - makes a startling declaration.

His tradition is not appropriate for most Americans, he says, and he has no intention of spreading it.

"I always say that Buddhism can only make its contributions in the West if Buddhists are satisfied with not being Buddhist," says Thurman. For example, he approvingly cites the healer John Kabat-Zinn, whose stress-reduction clinics employ Buddhist meditation techniques without promoting the tradition's complex teachings.

"He's not teaching them Buddhism, he's teaching them how to lower their blood pressure," Thurman says of Kabat-Zinn. "But all the methods are Buddhist and he's a Buddhist. Whereas, if you ran around and said you want to have Buddhist clinics in all the hospitals, everyone would freak out, starting with the local Baptist church."

So it is with his latest book, "The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism." The book, based on a retreat Thurman led on a once-secret text of a 17th century Tibetan master, encourages Christians, Jews and others to adapt the Tibetan techniques of visualization and meditation to their own traditions to cultivate self-understanding, compassion and wisdom.

The central practice involves visualizing a jewel tree filled with luminous enlightened beings pouring down their radiant light and blessings to drive away all doubt and anxiety, clearing the mind to meditate. But Thurman does not advise or expect those of other faiths to envision the pantheon of Buddhist masters as he does. Rather, he instructs readers to fill the tree limbs with their own spiritual mentors: angels, Jesus, Mary, Moses, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, even parents.

Buddhist methods without the Buddhism, in other words.

It may seem an odd stand for a man credited with helping to popularize Tibetan Buddhism in America. For more than 40 years, Thurman has studied and shared his tradition through his books, talks, academic activities and high-profile friendships with the Dalai Lama and Hollywood Buddhists, including actor Richard Gere, with whom he helped found the Tibet House cultural center in New York. But the point is not for people to become Buddhist, he says. It is to use the teachings to become compassionate, liberated and wise.

"We should not be selling religion and especially [not] converting," Thurman says, adding that the Dalai Lama decades ago called on all religious leaders to stop trying to convert others because it only caused conflict.

Thurman, 63, passionately expounded on this subject and many others during his visit to the Southland, where he spoke to 1,000 people in Santa Barbara, attended a wedding and promoted his book. A tall man with tousled blond hair and one plastic eye ? the result of an accident decades ago ? Thurman booms out blunt opinions.

He riffs on the 2004 election (he voted for Sen. John Kerry) and the war in Iraq (he opposed it and wrote an e-mail to the White House reminding his president that Jesus said to love your enemies, not bomb them). He skewers religious fundamentalists and dissects what he views as the fallacies in scientific and theistic explanations of human purpose. He reminisces about his early days with the Dalai Lama, when both were in their 20s.

He talks Hollywood: Gere is a serious Buddhist; Brad Pitt never was. As for Thurman's actress daughter Uma ? well, you'll have to ask her yourself. He says he exposed her to Buddhist teachings along with other traditions, including Christianity and Judaism, with the aim of teaching her to think for herself.

Raised in New York as the son of an actress and an Associated Press editor, Thurman attended Harvard until 1961, when a tire jack slipped while he was changing a flat and his eye was destroyed. Suddenly questioning his life's purpose, he left his first wife and daughter and went to India, where he began teaching English to Tibetan lamas. He returned to the United States and began studying Tibetan Buddhism with his first mentor, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal.

Ask Thurman what captivated him about Tibetan culture and philosophy, and he unleashes a stream of accolades. A more logical alphabet! Yoga! Holistic medicine! Mostly, he says, better philosophy than the Western thinkers he had studied at Harvard. The Buddhist idea of transcendent wisdom, of the "middle way" between self-indulgence and self-mortification, of selflessness as the foundation of compassion and ethical activity, was thrilling, he says.

"It wasn't like [seeking] God or some new god or some Asian god," he says. "I was looking for better studies."

In 1962, Thurman met for the first time with the Dalai Lama, who soon took an interest in the Tibetan-speaking young American. The two eventually started meeting weekly; but, Thurman says, the Dalai Lama would refer his inquiries about Buddhism to another teacher and instead pepper him with questions about Freud, physics and other topics during the time they spent together. Over the reservations of Thurman's teacher, the Dalai Lama ordained the American.

Within a few years, however, the new monk resigned his robes, returned to the United States and, in 1967, married a former model, the Swedish-born Nena von Schlebrugge, with whom he has four children, including Uma.

Thurman says he had come to realize that he could do more to help others as an American professor than as a Tibetan monk.

He returned to Harvard for his advanced degrees and today heads Columbia's religious studies department as the Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies.

Tibet and its Buddhism do not seem quite as trendy today as during the 1980s and '90s, an era when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize, Hollywood produced two films about Tibet, national magazines put Buddhism on their covers and Gere spoke out about Tibet at the Academy Awards (Thurman was an informal consultant on the films "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet").

But Thurman says Buddhism's lessons are even more critical today, and believes it offers the world two key contributions.

The first, he says, is help in softening rigid identities ? racial, sexual, religious, national ? that cause conflicts.

The second is Buddhism's teachings on demilitarization. Every society that at least partially demilitarized at some point, he argues, had strong monastic institutions, including Tibet, India and Japan. Now, with soaring defense budgets and global conflict, Thurman says America and the world could use a surge of monasticism.

"A monastery, I think, would be a good place for John Rambo," he says, using a Hollywood metaphor. "Put that macho thing into self-conquest of their own inner life and world, instead of conquering other people and fighting and killing."