Just about any Westerner whose spiritual or intellectual journey includes the subject of Tibetan Buddhism will encounter the work of Robert A. F. Thurman. He was the first American to ordain as a Tibetan Buddhist monk before returning to lay life to become Columbia University’s Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies, the cofounder and president of the nonprofit Tibet House US, the president of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, and a prolific author and translator.
Earlier this month, Thurman was a speaker at BuddhaFest LA, a three-day festival featuring a wide variety of films, talks, workshops, music, and guided meditations. Thurman gave two talks: one titled Buddha: Great Physician & Mind Scientist for Trying Times and another with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg called How Radical Compassion Will Change Your Life, both of which are available at BuddhaFest Online through August 11.
Tricycle (the event’s media partner) spoke with Thurman about his talks, what he believes scientists can learn from the Buddhist wisdom tradition, and how the Buddha can serve as an example for social action today.
One of your talks has the provocative title of Buddha: Great Physician & Mind Scientist for Trying Times. In what way was the Buddha a scientist?
I didn’t realize that was provocative. Buddhism is categorized as a world religion, but the Buddha was not a prophet. He did not promise to save anybody, and he openly proclaimed that God, as understood in his day as Brahma, the creator, was not able to do so either. Instead, he said people could save themselves from suffering by learning about their own nature and understanding their reality as relational beings.
My point is that the Buddha was not asking for blind faith as much as he was treating human suffering the way a physician does. The four noble truths, for example, follow the Ayurvedic model of medical diagnosis: recognition of the symptoms of the disorder; diagnosis of the cause (ignorance and the craving that arises from it); prognosis of how you can recover if you treat the disorder; and then four, the prescribed therapy. The Buddha being a physician is actually a common theme in the literature.
Related: Is Buddhism Scientific or Religious?
Some might object that Buddhism is a religion with temples and priests and that there are people who believe in something and call themselves Buddhist. But the Buddha founded the sangha as an educational system to help people develop the wisdom to free themselves from suffering. Then, like you might witness at a big game between Yale and Harvard, some alumni had an allegiance and devotion to their alma mater, you could say. However, the institution is really about people who are studying and trying to gain understanding.
Part of the reason it seemed provocative is that recently many people have been pushing back against the medicalization of Buddhism and Buddhist practices, like mindfulness. Some critics, instead of arguing that Buddhism doesn’t rise to the level of science, ask why we should drag Buddhism down to the level of science?
That involves a couple of presuppositions. One is that mindfulness is Buddhism—or even that meditation is Buddhism—which is highly sold but not the case. The three educations, or trisikkha, is usually translated as trainings. But shiksha is the word used in India’s department of education today. Calling it training allows Western people to avoid the idea that Buddhism has a knowledge that is equal to and/or superior to the knowledge of materialist science.
Saying that mindfulness is all you need to thrive in your corporation or in your household is completely overselling it, and there should be a backlash against it. Also, it’s not all of Buddhism by any means. It’s one branch of eight branches, the seventh part of the eightfold path. And mindfulness by itself is not at all how you get free of suffering. Real mindfulness will actually make you more aware of how much you are suffering and will make you resolve to try to do more about it. But it won’t be by just sitting and being more mindful.
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Some people will say, “I’m spiritual, and science has nothing to say about my spirituality. Why would I want my spirituality to be dragged down?” But that ignores the fact that science is the religion of the modern world. The idea that Buddhism can get dragged down falls into the scientific materialistic trap by assuming that our religious beliefs make us feel good but are unrealistic and not scientifically corroborable. And that, again, is conflating Buddhism with blind faith, which it isn’t. Buddha was 100 percent against blind faith. He said if you believe in something that your reason and common sense say couldn’t be true, that belief will cripple you mentally.
It sounds like part of what you are saying is that Buddhism is not a subset of natural science but that it is a science in the same way that natural science is a science. Is that right?
No, I’m being a little more aggressive. I’m saying that Buddhism is what science should be doing—Buddha’s wisdom teaching is what scientists should practice. They can do their material science, too, but the modern idea that secular means totally materialistic is a very rare case in history. The Buddha was seeking knowledge of reality, but for him, the mind was part of that secular reality. So by practicing Buddhist science, they would be taking a different kind of responsibility about the quality of their own minds and experience, and they would truly drop the dogma of materialism.
I am insisting that Buddhism be taken seriously as a knowledge system. The arrogance of Western materialist scientists, that they understand the world and know how to fix it, is ridiculous because they are destroying it, not fixing it. They need higher knowledge—not just some faith or god. And the Buddha’s teaching has a way of helping them. Scientists who meet the Dalai Lama often come away saying, “Boy, I had some new insights talking with him. He’s so smart.” But they don’t ask any questions about Buddhist science or what Buddhist knowledge is. They don’t think that he knows something, they just think he’s peaceful and nice and that, in his presence, they have great ideas. That is our Western arrogance. It’s really terrible.
When I say that everyone should be a Buddhist scientist, I don’t mean they have to be a Buddhist or change their group affiliation, just that they need to be more enlightened. [His Holiness the 14th] Dalai Lama often says he doesn’t want people leaving their grandmother’s religions because they studied some Buddhism. He wants people to keep granny happy and stay in that religion, and if they learn by meditating, studying, or being more ethical, then they’re elevating their own cultural setting, which is great.
You also call the Buddha a social revolutionary. What do you mean by that?
Imagine going to [New York City] Mayor Bill De Blasio and asking for a big building in the park for anybody who wants to shave their head, put on an orange robe, and renounce their name and property to live there, be fed freely, and be respected and asked questions. What would he say?
That is what the Buddha did, and it is revolutionary. He created a non-caste caste in the middle of the rigid Indian system and got the kings and the warriors to cater to it. In my  book Inner Revolution, I argue that it is a total social revolution to say that the individual has a higher destiny than just fitting into their role in society—and the idea that the individual can achieve freedom from suffering and achieve higher awareness of the nature of reality.
Some people will point to the fact that the Buddha went away and created the sangha as a way of suggesting that the best method for addressing societal problems is not to fix the current system but to go create your own community.
That’s only if you assume that being a monk or a nun automatically means that you’re not intervening in social life. When the Buddha built the monastic institution (building on the Indian ashram, which was limited to men from the brahmin caste), he said that monastics couldn’t stay more than seven stones’ throw away from the marketplace of the villages and towns. They had to go in and get fresh food every day because they couldn’t accept two days’ worth of food. So he set up the sangha to be closely interconnecting with the society.
Your other talk, with Sharon Salzberg, is about “radical compassion.” How is compassion radical in our time?
Sometimes when I speak to a big audience of four, five hundred people, I will ask, “How many of you think that we will avoid major war, avoid this climate catastrophe that looms over us, and make the radical changes necessary to govern wisely?” Very few people will raise their hands. People are resigned; they are all brainwashed into thinking that they have no power. They think that nobody good will ever come and that all governments are equally bad. People voted for [President Donald] Trump because they hate all of them, and they thought, “Here’s some guy who hates them all too.” Meanwhile, he’s the worst of them.
Compassion in the teeth of that cynicism is radical. But there is a tendency among some Buddhists to act like, you can’t be too compassionate because you’ll get wasted. Well, that’s not the Buddhist attitude. Compassion and nonviolence is a powerful thing, it’s not a weakness. The Harvard sociologist Gene Sharp wrote many books on nonviolence and how, for example, under the Nazis, nonviolent protests saved trainloads of people. Determined nonviolent protests by masses of people are really very effective. Even the worst, nastiest people will not endlessly kill people who are opposing them unarmed. They might kill a few hoping to take it down, but they don’t kill them all.
The Dalai Lama has been fighting back against the genocidal invasion of his country, nonviolently, and seeking dialogue with the government. Many people have said, and they continue to say, “That’s unrealistic, it’ll never work, and it’s a lost cause.” But my question to them is, how is violence doing? How is militarism doing? Has anyone really won anything? Is it ever going to be stable? I don’t think so. So my point is, radical compassion is the one thing that could possibly save the world at this time.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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